06/22/2013 12:15 EDT | Updated 08/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Labrador Basque whaling station named Canada's 17th world heritage site

RED BAY, N.L. - A small community on the southern coast of Labrador enriched with history in early North American whaling has become Canada's latest world heritage site.

Red Bay, N.L., is home to the most complete and extensive example of 16th-century Basque whaling stations.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recently made the decision to grant the site the international designation at its annual meeting in Cambodia.

Cindy Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Parks Canada, said the world heritage status is the highest honour that a cultural site can receive.

"It feels absolutely wonderful to have been part of the process of getting the Red Bay Basque whaling station to that point," said Gibbons, who has worked for the past five years to achieve UNESCO recognition.

Although only a couple hundred residents currently live in Red Bay, during its heyday over one thousand whalers travelled annually to the community from the Basque region of France and Spain to take part in large-scale commercial whaling, said Gibbons.

The area, which encompasses six square kilometres of both terrestrial and underwater archeological sites, represents a rare, thoroughly documented example of the whaling process, a Parks Canada news release said.

The site has more than a dozen shore stations containing well-preserved remnants of rendering ovens, workshops, wharfs and sunken galleons, the release said.

"Red Bay became the largest and the most important whaling port in the world during the 16th century," said Gibbons on Saturday.

The site is where whaling first took place on a commercial scale and is the era's largest known Basque whaling station in North America, said Gibbons.

Red Bay was one of two Canadian sites nominated this year for UNESCO world heritage status. The second, Pimachiowin Aki, is a nearly 35,000-square-kilometre region straddling the Manitoba and Ontario border.

Pimachiowin Aki was nominated for its cultural and natural importance, founded on the relationship between the boreal forest landscape and its longtime resident First Nation people, the Anishinaabeg, who have inhabited the region for thousands of years, Parks Canada said.

The UNESCO world heritage committee deferred deciding whether to include that site on its list, asking Canada to refine its proposal for next year's meeting.

The committee also raised concerns at this year's meeting about plans for oil exploration at another Newfoundland and Labrador world heritage site.

The group recommended a monitoring mission be sent to Gros Morne National Park to assess the risk of a proposed hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — operation. The plan would involve drilling several exploratory wells off Newfoundland's west coast in the Green Point shale near the park.

Gros Morne, known for its fjords, waterfalls and spectacular cliffs, was designated a UNESCO world heritage site 25 years ago.

The park, along with L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site and the newly-designated Red Bay Basque whaling station, make up the province's three world heritage sites.

Nearly 1,000 other sites around the world are on the UNESCO list, which recognizes places of exceptional beauty or cultural value.

_ By Geordon Omand in Halifax