NNSL Photo/Graphic
Home page text size buttonsbigger textsmall textText size
Arctic Sunrise joins seismic battle
Activists, celebrities and community members sail through Baffin Bay

Jessica Davey-Quantick
Northern News Services
Saturday, August 20, 2016

The case won't be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada until Nov. 30, but activists and community members last week in Clyde River were drawing attention to their fight against seismic blasting along the Arctic coast.

NNSL photo/graphic

Dr. Lindy Weilgart, a whale expert and bioaccustician onboard the Arctic Sunrise says the seismic testing could have devastating effects on marine life. - photo courtesy of Greenpeace

The Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise was sailing through Baffin Bay and into the Davis Strait to highlight the area under threat. Onboard are actor and activist Emma Thompson as well as scientists and Clyde River residents.

TGS NOPEC Geophysical Company ASA (TGS) and MultiKlient Invest AS (MKI), a subsidiary of Petroleum GeoServices (PGS), proposed the project, originally meant to begin in 2014, to survey the offshore geology in the area. The results could then be used to determine the potential for drilling.

The survey would involve, according to the National Energy Board which approved the project, a vessel towing 34 airguns that would go off every 13 to 30 seconds, 24 hours a day, at 230 decibels. The sound would travel through the water into the seabed, before reflecting back through the rock layers to listening devices.

This has many people onboard the Arctic Sunrise nervous. "Seismic blasting is so detrimental because the air cannon blasts are very very loud. As loud as a jet engine blast, even louder," said Jerry Natanine, former mayor of Clyde River, in an interview by satellite phone with Nunavut News/North from aboard the ship. "The scientific research that we've seen all point to the fact that all that cannon blasting noise underwater can have detrimental effects on the migration routes of whales, their feeding behaviours and their mating behaviours and that to us, as Inuit from Clyde River, can have detrimental effects on our lives."

Dr. Lindy Weilgart, a whale expert and bioaccustician onboard the Arctic Sunrise agrees. "Seismic air guns are so loud they can permanently damage the hearing of marine mammals nearby, and at a greater distance can drastically reduce the area over which they can communicate," she stated in a news release.

The environmental assessment of the project by the National Energy Board includes in its analysis that the airgun array could temporarily reduce hearing sensitivity or cause hearing impairment, masking communication and changing behaviour and migration routs of marine mammals like bowhead whales, beluga whales, killer whales, narwhal, harbour porpoise, polar bears, seals and walrus, as well as fish and other marine life. Many of these species are currently on threatened or endangered lists.

But the National Energy Board found in its assessment that the mitigation in place are enough to dismiss these concerns.

"The environmental assessment had stated that there's no significant environmental effects. So that basically says that the project as described and the mitigations included would not result in any significant environmental effects, and that includes effects on wildlife," said Christy Wickenheiser, environmental specialist with the National Energy Board. She adds that the environmental assessment includes provisions like 'ramping up' -- a process where sound is slowly turned up so that wildlife has a chance to move out of the way -- and observers in place to shut down testing if animals are within 500 metres of the ship.

"Essentially a marine wildlife observer has to observe a shut down area, and if there's a critter or wildlife spotted in that shutdown zone, they cannot proceed or they have to shut down seismic testing," she said.

Natanine said no amount of precautions would make the seismic testing worth it. "That would kill us in my view!" he said. "Our culture in Clyde River, we depend a lot on country food -- narwhals, seals, fish. Our economy, a big portion of our economy is in the fishing industry and ... because groceries that we buy from the store are very very expensive ... a lot people cannot live just off that."

Greenpeace got involved to try to bring the eyes of the world to Nunavut.

"What we are hoping to do is draw attention to the Clyde River seismic site. We want to share this story of people in Clyde with folks all around the world and really give them the attention that they deserve," said Farrah Khan, an Arctic campaigner for Greenpeace Canada by satellite phone from onboard the ship.

"Greenpeace as an international organization, we have the ability to speak to a large audience. And what we're trying to do here is kind of pass the mic and offer that to the community of Clyde River so that they can use our channels and use our reach to share their own story."

E-mailWe welcome your opinions. Click here to e-mail a letter to the editor.