Lancaster Sound: Uniting industry, government and conservation groups with a shared vision

Top row: NCC; bottom row, from left: NCC, Parks Canada (2)

Top row: NCC; bottom row, from left: NCC, Parks Canada (2)

There is no place on Earth quite like Tallurutiup Tariunga, or Lancaster Sound. It is a place of uncommon beauty and natural richness. The recognition of its significance as a unique and ecologically rich area of the Canadian Arctic has united a number of partners in a common passion – and determination to act – for protecting a sizable area at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, the legendary corridor through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago off the coast of Nunavut.

This habitat type is called polynya – it’s a place where open water remains into the winter. Lancaster Sound is critically important to marine mammals, including seals, narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales, walruses and polar bears, says Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC) president and CEO John Lounds. And its surrounding shores are home to some of the Arctic’s most important seabird breeding colonies, with populations in the hundreds of thousands.

The idea to put protective measures in place here isn’t new. For more than 30 years, local communities have advocated for conservation efforts. But a coming together of government agencies, non-profit groups and industry partners this year is helping to accelerate the process.

The habitat type in Lancaster Sound is called polynya, which means open water remains into the winter. This makes it an ecologically rich and significant place. NASA

The habitat type in Lancaster Sound is called polynya, which means open water remains into the winter. This makes it an ecologically rich and significant place. NASA

A federal proposal first prepared by Parks Canada in 1987 envisioned protecting an area of roughly 48,000 square kilometres of marine territory encompassing most of Lancaster Sound. But the local Inuit community was in favour of a much larger National Marine Conservation Area. Although a government moratorium on oil and gas activity had restricted exploration activities in the area for nearly 40 years, Shell Canada still held permits near the mouth of Lancaster Sound.  

“With strong, existing relationships in place with industry and government, the Nature Conservancy of Canada recognized an opportunity to facilitate conversation for the sake of conservation,” says Mr. Lounds. “Those conversations led to a solution that will ultimately help protect this natural area.” He adds that NCC has a long-standing relationship with Shell Canada, which has made substantial contributions to conservation efforts over the years.

Shell chose to voluntarily contribute more than 860,000 hectares (8,625 square kilometres) of offshore exploratory permits in the waters of Baffin Bay, near Lancaster Sound, to NCC. In June of this year, NCC released those permits to the Government of Canada, which has committed to working as quickly as possible with the Government of Nunavut and the affected communities to set boundaries and establish the marine conservation area.

The magnitude of the Shell Canada permits, which represent an area larger than Banff National Park, is a testament to the commitment of forward-thinking companies like Shell.
— John Lounds is president and CEO of Nature Conservancy Canada

For Shell Canada president Michael Crothers, much can be achieved when industry, government and conservation groups come together to find common ground. It is his hope that the alignment of interests of the different partners will lead to expanding the proposed marine protected area, which would positively respond to Inuit aspirations to protect their traditional territory and see human uses continue in an ecologically sustainable manner.

“[Creating] a larger National Marine Conservation Area would also support the federal government’s target of protecting at least 10 per cent of Canada’s marine and coastal areas by 2020; an international target under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity,” he adds.

Mr. Lounds sees the Shell Canada permits as a “big contribution.” He also believes that they can serve as an inspiration.

“As many corporations look at integrating conservation into their corporate social responsibility programs, they may want to review their various holdings,” he explains.  
With a changing business climate, the original intended use for a particular area may well have shifted, with conservation being the best current outcome, explains Mr. Lounds.

He adds that NCC brings the necessary expertise for translating such ideas into action. In fact, the organization worked with Shell and other industry partners to contribute offshore rightsin favour of the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.  
Lounds says more and more people are choosing to “work for companies that conduct their business in a socially and environmentally responsible way.”

Mr. Crothers agrees: “At Shell, we don’t fear the future; we’re hopeful about it. We’re working with thinkers, leaders in business, government and environmental organizations, and with entrepreneurs, all with the goal of achieving a future that protects the environment and makes business sense.”

For Mr. Lounds, Shell Canada is one of the partners that is ahead of the game.

“They are paying attention to where the puck is headed, not just where it is, as Wayne Gretzky put it,” he says. “The more we all pay attention to that, the better off Canada will be.”

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