BUSINESS

Controversial seismic testing off Baffin Island cancelled for summer

05/27/2015 12:36 EDT | Updated 05/27/2016 05:59 EDT
A remote Arctic community is declaring victory after a consortium of energy companies cancelled controversial plans for seismic testing off Baffin Island this summer.

"I'm very happy about it," said Jerry Natanine, mayor of Clyde River, a hamlet along the island's east coast that strongly opposed the seismic plans.

"I'm reassured by the fact the company is willing to do what it did and go with our request."

The Norwegian-based consortium informed Natanine of the cancellation earlier this week. It said the decision only pertains to this summer's plans and it retains the right to test in the future.

A spokesman was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Last June, the National Energy Board approved plans from the three-company consortium to begin five years of seismic tests in the Davis Strait, up and down the entire length of Baffin Island. The testing, which uses loud, high-intensity sounds to help map the sea floor and the geology underneath, was to begin this summer.

The program is strongly opposed by the people of Clyde River, which argued before the board that the testing would disturb or harm seals, whales, walrus and other marine mammals locals depend on for food.

The hamlet was joined in its opposition by all the communities on Baffin Island, regional and territorial Inuit groups and the Nunavut Marine Council, which represents Nunavut's wildlife management bodies. In a rare example of Inuit teaming up with southern activists, a wide spectrum of 44 non-governmental groups and individuals also supported Clyde River, including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Amnesty International and faith-based groups such as KAIROS.

“Baffin Island Inuit have expressed strong and widespread opposition to seismic testing in their waters," said Farrah Khan, Greenpeace's Arctic campaigner.

"The decision to cancel seismic surveys this year is good news for human rights, and hopefully both industry and the federal government will get the message that they should not be forcing projects on communities without consent."

Clyde River also has argued in front of Federal Court for an injunction that would prevent the consortium from going ahead until a federal environmental assessment makes recommendations on which areas should remain closed to development.

A decision on that request is expected soon.

The three companies — TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Company ASA, Petroleum GeoServices and MultiKlient Invest AS — argued their tests would occur well outside the areas where marine mammals are hunted.

They pointed to studies suggesting that seismic tests only harm fish a few metres away from the sound source. It said any damage to the hearing of whales or other mammals would be likely to be short term and mitigated by the use of observers on the survey vessel, who could stop tests if animals were seen in the area.

But scientists say spotters can miss 80 per cent of whales in an area. Research also has suggested seismic tests are linked to a long list of stress behaviours. Fin whales have stopped singing. Sperm whales seem to grow sluggish and eat less. Most whales and dolphins leave.

One paper filed with the board suggested at least 37 marine species have been shown to be affected by seismic air-gun noise.

Natanine said his people don't oppose development. They just want answers about its possible consequences — and a better shot at reaping some of the benefits from resources.

He said he hopes the consortium's decision means it might be starting to see things his way.

"It leads me to think that the company is not just wanting to do what it wants to do and forget about us."