Eric Ootoovak remembers a time when the icy waters north of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic were teeming with narwhals. The mythical-looking sea creatures are woven into the culture of Inuit hunters like Ootoovak, who have caught these marine mammals for millennia, eating their meat, blubber and skin, which are packed with vitamins Inuit rely on to get through the long, dark winters.
“The narwhals used to be abundant, by the thousands, and we don’t see that today,” says Ootoovak, the chair of the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization, based in the Inuit hamlet of Pond Inlet on northern Baffin Island.
Things changed when the huge Mary River open pit iron ore mine started operations on Baffin Island in 2014, bringing dust, trucks and ships. Narwhal numbers dropped off, says Ootoovak, along with fish and seals. “What normally took us a couple of weeks to gather food for the winter now takes more than a month.” It’s a problem in a remote community with very little road access, where store-bought food is shipped or flown in, making it incredibly expensive.
For years, many Inuit communities have been raising concerns about the mine’s impacts on wildlife and their culture in this fragile Arctic region. Now they face a battle with even higher stakes.
Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation, the mine’s owner, wants to double iron ore production from six million to 12 million tonnes a year. If the proposal is approved, the number of ships transporting iron ore to Europe and Asia – many powered by climate-polluting heavy fuel oil – will increase from 85 to 168 each year. These shipping routes collide “with some of the most important marine mammal habitats anywhere in the Arctic,” says Chris Debicki, of marine conservation charity Oceans North. Narwhals, in particular, are significantly affected by noise, which can disrupt their migration patterns and lead them to become trapped under sea ice. Plans also include a 110km railway line to transport ore northwards from the mine, which Ootoovak says will cut across caribou habitat, making their mass migrations much more dangerous.
Then there’s the dust produced by the mine. It’s already “creating an environmental disaster,” says James Eetoolook, vice-president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc (NTI), which advocates for Inuit land rights in Nunavut territory, which encompasses Baffin Island. He talks of white Arctic hare turned pink and lakes near the mine that are now a deep red.
The Mary River mine conflict is just one front in a battle that is heating up across the Arctic as the climate crisis, a global thirst for the region’s mineral deposits and Indigenous rights collide. The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth and while for many the melting ice is a clear sign of the climate crisis, for industry it’s an opportunity to reach the enormous resources that lie beneath the surface.
“This is a story that’s happening in Greenland, Canada, the Nordics, Alaska,” says Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London. “What’s playing out here in the Arctic is Indigenous peoples, first and foremost, are not prepared to be told what’s going to happen to them.”
In February, a small group of Baffin Island hunters known as the Nuluujaat Land Guardians staged a blockade at the mine, cutting off its airstrip and service road for nearly a week. “This is the first time hunters stood up for their rights,” says Marie Naqitarvik, a Land Guardians supporter who lives in Arctic Bay, in the northwest of Baffin Island. “We have never heard anyone in Nunavut do a protest before because Inuit don’t usually stand up for themselves.”