Arctic narwhals have a new enemy: the noise of passing ships

In all of nature, there is only one creature with a unicorn-like tusk packed with millions of nerve endings. The narwhal whale can use its super long coiled tooth to detect variations in water pressure and temperature and also the concentration of salt in the water at different depths.

Narwhal can also survive in the Arctic, subsisting on fish, squid and shrimp, even when ice covers the sea for nine months each year. In the dead of winter, it can navigate and find prey underwater by emitting a series of clicks that sound at high frequencies, inaudible to the human ear.

In the Canadian Arctic, where most of the world’s 100,000 narwhals spend their summers, the Inuit hunt the narwhal; a family can live off the meat of a single whale for weeks. For them, the creature is almost transcendent. The Inuktitut word for narwhal translates to “he who points to the sky.”

But for all its powers, the narwhal is vulnerable, to climate change, yes, but also to a related problem: as the Arctic melts and resources like oil, iron, gold, and uranium become more accessible, the big ships roar more and more. They are altering an inordinately silent soundscape that, for thousands of years, has been isolated most of the year by a layer of ice that dampens noise and has no waves in winter. Suddenly the narwhals, like so many patrons in a noisy bar, are tasked with communicating amid the clamor, and they are struggling.

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The problem is deeper in the north of Baffin Island, where the Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation began excavating in 2014 and then increased maritime traffic almost sixfold in Tasiujaq, formerly Eclipse Sound, between 2015 and 2019. One of the extractors of Canada’s largest ore, Baffinland now plans to double its annual production from six to 12 million tons, and also increase, from 82 to 168, the number of giant tankers it can send through the sound each year.

Baffinland is eager to increase production, says CEO Brian Penney, because its Mary River mine, located near the northern tip of Baffin Island, is “among the richest iron ore deposits in the world.” The product can go directly to steel producers in Europe. “You don’t need concentration or chemical processing,” says Penney.

Baffinland’s expansion plans are currently under review. A verdict from the Northern Affairs minister (Dan Vandal was in office when Parliament was dissolved for the election) is expected sometime next year.

Suddenly the narwhals, like so many patrons in a noisy bar, are tasked with communicating amid the clamor, and they are struggling.

However, the Baffinland operations appear to have already caused stress to the narwhals. A 2021 study published in the journal Arctic science documented a “significant increase” in cortisol levels in the fat of narwhals at Tasiujaq since Baffinland began shipping there. Meanwhile, the number of narwhals in the sound nearly halved between 2019 and 2020, plummeting from 9,931 to 5,019, according to an environmental review funded by the mining company.

In tiny Pond Inlet, an almost exclusively Inuit village of 1,600 people, life is changing. “We used to have narwhals right in front of town,” says Eric Ootoovak, until recently president of the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization of Pond Inlet. “Now we don’t see them much here anymore. And when we catch them, they are thin. “

Ootoovak’s group is working closely with the World Wildlife Fund and Oceans North, a Canadian advocacy group, to defend the narwhal. In testimony to the Nunavut Impact Review Board last winter, Ootoovak disparaged the Baffinland ships. “The wildlife that we depend on for food,” he said, “is constantly being harassed by noise.”

However, Baffinland does not see himself as responsible for the changes at Tasiujaq. Megan Lord-Hoyle, vice president of sustainable development for the company, says: “Narwhal’s behavioral responses to shipping have been limited to temporary, localized and reversible effects.” In a separate statement, Baffinland says the reduced presence of narwhals in Tasiujaq could be due, among other things, to the noisy construction of a port in Pond Inlet.

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However, a leading narwhal acoustic expert questions this idea. Scripps Research Institute oceanographer Joshua Jones, who has recorded the sound of ships and whales in Tasiujaq since 2016, says the recent surge in boat traffic is “on par with some of the faster increases in the maritime transport of the planet “.

When a ship is within a kilometer of the narwhals, Jones says, the animals flee. “And when that happens,” he adds, “they are not nursing their young. They are not communicating with each other about where to find food, and potentially they are not looking for food. “Boats up to 100 km away have caused narwhals to deviate from their natural behaviors, Jones says, and the sounds of the boats are They often overlap with the social sounds of narwhals.When the sea rumble with the noise of ships, the whales sometimes cannot hear each other.

But what levels of underwater noise hinder narwhal communication and cause behavioral disturbances in Tasiujaq? Jones doesn’t know. “There is no hearing test for narwhals,” he laments.

In fact, much is unknown about this sedan-sized spotted gray whale. Installed in its remote frozen world, the narwhal is little studied, and when Jones began work on his doctoral thesis in 2014, he intended to ask a fundamental question: What is silence? How does the world of the narwhal sound, without ships?

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Jones originally planned to record the whale’s underwater habitat in the scarcest corner of the Canadian Arctic for ships, the Strait of Barrow. But the Inuit hunters asked him, “Why would you do that? There are people in Eclipse Sound who are really concerned about underwater noise. “

Jones changed course. At Tasiujaq, he worked closely with the Pond Inlet Hunters. “No one knows the narwhal better than the Inuit,” he reasoned. He lived in their houses for about a month each year, asking them when and where to find narwhals. He enlisted a local hunter, Alex Ootoovak, Eric’s cousin, as a research partner and has spent countless hours on the phone with Alex, negotiating the intricate repair of Scripps-built audio recorders using a hard drive capable of lasting a full year. under ice.

Jones’ ongoing audio investigation may ultimately answer pressing questions for Inuit and whale advocates everywhere: What do narwhals listen to? And what acoustic stressors can they withstand? You are still refining your answers. But his thesis is finished and he is the Inuit hunters’ best weapon in what will likely be an uphill battle.

Warren Bernauer, a geographer at the University of Manitoba who has written extensively on resource extraction in Nunavut, says it is rare for the federal government to reject mining projects there. “Yet it has happened,” he says. The Trudeau government said no to a proposed uranium mine in Nunavut in 2016, for example. Meanwhile, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has significant concerns about the impact Baffinland’s shipment will have on the narwhal, while the company’s proposed expansion is, Bernauer says, highly unpopular in the territory. “I have never seen a situation, since Nunavut was created in 1999, where a proposal was so clearly and directly opposed by so many Inuit communities and organizations.”

The Baffinland mining port in Milne Inlet, an arm of Tasiujag, has dramatically increased shipping traffic in the area (Courtesy of Hark Nijjar / Baffinland)

The Baffinland mining port in Milne Inlet, an arm of Tasiujag, has dramatically increased shipping traffic in the area (Courtesy of Hark Nijjar / Baffinland)

Pending the minister’s decision, Baffinland, which is largely owned by Houston-based private equity firm Energy & Minerals Group, has high hopes. The Mary River mine site is home to nine ore deposits. So far, Baffinland has only touched deposit 1. However, you are aware that deposits 1, 2 and 3 combine to deliver more than 1 billion tonnes of iron, more than 150 times what Baffinland currently ships each year. And Lord-Hoyle, the company’s sustainability expert, describes the extraction of this mineral as an ecological imperative. Steel made from iron ore, it says in an email to Maclean’s, plays “a key role” in “the process of building wind turbines and other modern green technologies.” Baffinland mining, he adds, produces “zero tailings and minimal waste rock. Only small amounts of water are used as a dust suppressant. “

Eric Ootoovak insists that the dust is barely suppressed. “Now there is iron ore dust everywhere,” he says. “It’s red in the leaves for miles and miles.” The residue, he says, frustrates another Inuit cultural practice: caribou hunting. “The caribou eat the vegetation and now there is less.”

Ootoovak and other Inuit have raised concerns about mining and shipping with Baffinland. But last winter, in his testimony, Ootoovak said the company has considered Inuit traditional knowledge simply as “stories” and has instead asked for “a file folder full of data on paper. This is not how we measure our world or keep track of things. “For the Inuit, Ootoovak says, knowledge resides in the stories told by the elders.” They are sharing our secrets of our survival, of how to respect the land, the waters and animals so that we can continue our connection to the world we depend on. “

As he sees it, that world is fading, and the expansion of Baffinland would only make it disappear faster. He prepares for a bleak future. “I’m pretty sure my three-year-old grandson won’t be able to hunt narwhals,” says Ootoovak. “He will have no narwhals left to hunt. It breaks my heart. “

This article appears in print in the October 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the title “The sound of too much noise”. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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