Ups and Downs of Melting Ice: Weighing Environmental and Economic Concerns Surrounding Marine Tourism in Nunavut

Lian Francis is a first-year student at the McGill Faculty of Law and an Associate Editor with the McGill Journal of Sustainable Development Law. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from McGill.

The isolated hamlets and imposing landscapes of Canada’s remote north remain, for most Canadians, a distant region of their country that they will likely never visit. Yet, as a result of melting ice in these northernmost reaches of the continent, more and more Canadian and international tourists will have the opportunity to visit Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. The Northwest Passage, exceedingly treacherous to navigate until recent decades because of ice cover, now sees steadily increasing ship traffic. Rising cruise ship tourism poses a particular dilemma for northern Inuit communities, who are torn between the prospects of improving their often dire economic conditions and the preservation of their lands and waters.

Cruise boat in Nunavut
Quark_Expeditions#/media/File:15-09-11_006_Quark_Expeditions_ship,_ Sea_Adventurer_(Nassau_registry_IMO_7391422),_at_

Melting ice already adversely affects Inuit communities in a number of ways. Thin and receding ice reduces the available hunting and fishing grounds, threatening food security. Melting permafrost and the resultant cracks in the land make travel to remaining grounds and ancestral sites dangerous. Marine tourism, however, presents a new challenge. In August of this year, the Crystal Serenity, a cruise ship carrying more than 1700 passengers and crew, sailed through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and stopped in several Nunavut towns. The Serenity, which made the same voyage for the first time last year, is by far the largest cruise ever to have taken this route; most other ships that have traversed the Northwest Passage carried fewer than 200 passengers. This may be the mark of a new era of marine tourism in Canada’s North – in 2016, 11 different ships made a total of 25 voyages along the coast of Nunavut.

On one hand, the growing tourism industry offers important economic opportunities. When tourists disembark in these Inuit communities, locals host art fairs, put on cultural demonstrations, and lead guided tours of the town. For families who struggle financially at other times of the year, this is a much-needed source of income. On the other hand, communities worry about the environmental impacts of increased ship traffic. Many cruise ships emit dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide and contribute to both air and water pollution. Increased traffic will also mean a greater risk of oil spills, a particularly significant concern given that cleanups and emergency rescues are difficult to carry out in the remote north due to extreme weather and navigational challenges. Communities are especially worried about the damaging effects of water and sound pollution on sea life, their main food source. The premature breakup of ice for the passage of ships also disturbs natural habitats and hunting grounds.

Pond Inlet, a town at
which the Crystal Serenity stopped

Public institutions in Nunavut have weighed in on this dilemma, attempting to assist communities in balancing both economic and environmental goals. The Nunavut Impact Review Board, whose creation was negotiated as part of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement between the Canadian government and the Inuit peoples of Nunavut, screens proposed projects in the region and assesses their environmental and socioeconomic impacts to ensure that approved projects promote the well-being of Nunavut’s communities and protect its ecosystems. In its screening decision regarding the Crystal Serenity voyage, the NIRB judged that the environmental impact of the ship’s passage would be minimal provided the crew conform with a number of recommendations, including limiting the time passengers could observe marine animals and ensuring personnel were trained in spill cleanup procedures. The Nunavut Planning Commission, also created by the Land Claims Agreement, drafted in 2016 a land-use plan which aimed to find a compromise between protecting Nunavut’s lands and waters and allowing tourism, mining, and other forms of development. The plan proposes using buffer zones and other restrictions to protect important habitats.

The Government of Nunavut has also responded with proposals of how to manage the growing marine tourism industry and its complex effects on communities. The Ministry of Economic Development and Transport released last year its Marine Tourism Management Plan, one of the key goals of which is to support community engagement in marine tourism planning by providing informational resources and assisting with data collection on the economic benefits of marine tourism activities. Another key goal is the adoption of legislation and regulations for the industry to address both economic development and environmental concerns. The Plan outlines several strategies to communicate these regulations to cruise operators and other actors in the tourism industry, including the design of codes of conduct for passengers when they visit communities and observe wildlife. An amendment to the Nunavut Tourism Act, which came into effect in April of this year, allows the government to designate an area as a Restricted Tourism Area for cultural, ecological, historical, or safety reasons, and to limit tourism activities within designated areas. The amendment also authorizes the government to create regulatory schemes for a wide range of tourism-related activities.

No regulations specific to marine tourism have been passed as of yet, so whether communities and the government will succeed in balancing environmental protection with economic goals is still to be seen. Canada’s contested sovereignty over the waters of the Northwest Passage may pose an additional challenge in the establishment of effective marine traffic regulations. As well, it may be that the increase in cruise ship tourism is less problematic in terms of environmental impact than the growing private yacht and sailboat traffic, as cruise operators typically work with communities to make visits run smoothly and to respond to concerns about wildlife. It is to be hoped that future regulations will promote similar cooperation between communities and private boaters so that the towns of Nunavut will be able to truly benefit from marine tourism.



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