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Inuit want review of approval for offshore Baffin seismic testing

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A tiny community on Canada's Arctic coast is trying to overturn a regulatory decision that OKs offshore energy exploration.

On Monday, the hamlet of Clyde River along the east coast of Baffin Island filed documents in Federal Court asking for a judicial review of a National Energy Board decision that approves seismic testing in waters near the community.

"What the people are fearing is that the ecology and the mammals in the sea are going to be affected negatively and that in turn will affect our hunter-gatherer society, our culture that we live here," said Jerry Natanine, mayor of Clyde River.

In June, the energy board approved a Norwegian consortium's proposal for a five-year program of seismic tests in a huge section of the Davis Strait that extends 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, is to begin next summer.

The consortium's application was strongly opposed by a wide variety of Inuit groups.

The Baffin Mayors Forum, composed of all the communities on Baffin Island, joined with Clyde River. Both regional and territorial Inuit groups agreed it was a bad idea.

So did the Nunavut Marine Council, which represents the territory's wildlife management bodies.

"Everyone in this region is concerned about it," said Natanine. "If the marine mammals are affected, it's going to affect other communities and other people."

Natanine said people want the project stopped until a strategic environmental assessment is complete. That assessment, conducted by the federal government, would make recommendations on which areas should be open to development and which ones should remain closed.

"People in our community are not against development, they just want to do it in a sustainable way," Natanine said.

The board approved seismic tests after what it called an unprecedented amount of public participation, with public meetings held in four commutes. A full report was written on the proposal before the decision was released.

The approval was given subject to 15 conditions, including having a marine mammal observer who would be stationed on the seismic vessel and be able to stop testing if an animal were spotted within 500 metres.

The measure isn't that effective, said Lindy Weilgart, a marine biologist from Dalhousie University.

"They are almost window-dressing. They are better than nothing, but only just."

Even the best spotter can easily miss 80 per cent of the whales in an area, she said.

Although seismic tests haven't been conclusively tied to impacts on mammals, Weilgart said there is extensive research going back decades that links them to a wide variety of stress behaviours.

Fin whales have stopped singing to each other during testing. Sperm whales seem to grow sluggish and eat less. Most whales and dolphins flee the area.

Harvests of a wide variety of fish species have fallen off dramatically near test areas. The tests have been linked to hearing damage in fish and reduced viability of their eggs.

"At least 37 marine species have been shown to be affected by seismic air-gun noise," Weilgart wrote in a paper summarizing the research.

"Seismic air-gun noise must be considered a serious marine environmental pollutant."

Natanine said his community turned to the courts after its concerns were ignored by the government.

"They don't have concern regarding our concerns at all."

The community has tried to reach its MP, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, without success.

"We haven't heard back from her on any of this," Natanine said.

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