After almost a decade of planning, Canada has officially established its largest marine conservation area to date. The vast stretch of pristine ocean has been called the "Serengeti of the Arctic", and it's home to 20 percent of the world's beluga whales.

During a recent expedition, camera crews with conservation organisation Sea Legacy managed to film the white whales on their annual migration to this precious – and now protected – habitat. 

Within the 110,000-square-kilometre conservation area lies Lancaster Sound, a channel tucked in between Devon and Baffin Island that acts as a nursery for the belugas that pass through its borders – one of the last beluga nurseries left on the planet. This is also where Sea Legacy founder and renowned wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen spent his early years. He attributes his love for Arctic wildlife to the region's rich biodiversity and cultural heritage. 

"Since I can remember, the Inuit in the communities I grew up in have been advocating for the protection of this territory," says Nicklen. "To most people, this vast, icy landscape may seem barren, but it is a vital hunting ground for Inuit communities that have lived here for generations."

Five Inuit communities live on the sound (now formally recognised as "Tallurutiup Imanga"), and they represent an active voice in local conservation issues. The Qikiqtani Inuit Association, an NGO that works in the Baffin region to promote Inuit rights and values, pushed for a larger inclusion area after the initial proposal for the marine park fell short in 2010. 

Traditional hunts, which will continue to be permitted within the park, can be a source of controversy, but the local communities here have been living in harmony with local wildlife for thousands of years – their very survival has depended on maintaining the ecosystem's balance. What's more, Inuit traditional knowledge will be key for wildlife officials when it comes to future management decisions: the communities' intimate relationship with this region makes them incredibly valuable collaborators. 

"There's a requirement that the local people actually benefit from the establishment of this protected area, and that's really significant," said Chris Debicki of the Pew Charitable Trust's Oceans North Canada in an interview with News Deeply earlier this year, following the confirmation of the park's final borders. "We're hopeful we are going to see a new model of conservation come out of this."

A hardy population of Arctic cod brings more than just belugas to these waters: polar bears, rare seals, bowhead whales, millions of seabirds and most of the world's narwhals also move through the area. Parks Canada is still negotiating the terms of Inuit participation, but the region's new protected status will ultimately result in a complete ban on oil and gas activities, commercial fishing harvest, deep-sea mining and ocean dumping. 

"The best part is that Shell Canada has voluntarily relinquished 30 oil and gas exploration leases that cover about 8,600 square kilometres of Arctic waters in the area," adds the Sea Legacy team. That decision followed a 2016 lawsuit filed by the World Wildlife Fund.

The new protections come info force at a truly critical juncture. Historically, this unique frigid expanse has seen nine months of annual ice cover, but just like so many other polar habitats, it's experiencing some alarming changes. With concerns about the loss of sea ice mounting, the time for implementing better protections, monitoring and enforcement within park boundaries is now. 

"This is really good news for the wildlife and the people that call this beautiful place home," says the team. 

Sea Legacy's expeditions to Tallurutiup Imanga will be included in "The Last Ice", a longterm documentary project in collaboration with The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and the National Geographic Society's "Pristine Seas". 

Narhwals Related 2016 04 29


Top header image: Sea Legacy