PANGNIRTUNG, Nunavut - It's likely the person who wrote "Welcome to Pangnirtung" in white-painted rocks on the side of a 2,000-foot "hill" overshadowing the airport here was well-meaning. But the cruel irony is the same massive rock that welcomes visitors also is the source of Pang's notoriety as the "stuck" capital of Nunavut -- a place that's often easier to get into than out of.
Winds sweeping over the hill tumble down onto the airstrip creating a vortex that makes it impossible for aircraft to land when crosswinds are a mere 20 mph (they can land in 45 mph crosswinds most anywhere else). I flew in for a three-hour stay. When the winds freshened, as they say, three hours became 30.
The great thing about being stuck in Pangnirtung ("place of the bull caribou" in Inuktitut), is that you're stuck in Pang, a village of 1,500 at the top of a breathtakingly beautiful fiord that runs inland from Cumberland Sound. Surrounded by snow-capped, 6,000-foot mountains, it is the gateway to Auyuittuq National Park and the Penny Ice Cap, which attract Arctic adventurists from around the world.
The awesome setting, however, was an unexpected bonus -- I had come here fishing for something else, a story, a big one that is not likely to get away.
Climate change is speeding ahead in the High Arctic faster than anywhere else on Earth. Just last week, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center revealed the size of the "permanent" Arctic ice cap has shrunk to an unprecedented low, to 1.3 million square miles from a long-time normal of 5.6 million square miles as a result of warming weather and a tendency for some melt to cascade into some more.
On a smaller scale, everywhere in Nunavut people report that spring thaw comes days earlier than it used to, and it lasts weeks longer, creating as much as a month more of open water along tens of thousands of miles of coast, two thirds of Canada's coast, that had never been fished except for subsistence.
More open water longer has encouraged a commercial fishery, starting in 1986. There are now six factory-freezer trawlers owned by Inuit consortiums in Nunavut, fishing Baffin Bay and the Davis Straight, the waters separating Baffin Island and Greenland, about 600 kilometres to the east.
The fishery brought in $75 million last year, a drop in the bucket compared to Canada's $2.5-billion East Coast fishery. But then $75 million goes a long way in a territory of 33,000 people, and the fishery is only in its infancy.
How large it might grow is anyone's guess, largely because nobody knows what has been locked under the ice for millennia.
Norman Halden, dean of geological sciences at the University of Manitoba's faculty of environment, earth and resources (FEER), said very little is known for scientific-fact about Arctic fish or their populations.
It's not even known whether there is any truth to the adage that fish grow slower in cold water, he said, a bit of knowledge that might be invaluable in setting eventual quotas.
One thing, however, is certain, he said. Climate change is a slow process by human reckoning, and the science to explain it will evolve at a similar glacial pace, meaning there will be no quick or easy answers in the near future about how best to proceed.
"We're largely in the dark," he said, and likely to stay there for a long time.
In April, the Pew Institute collected signatures from more than 2,000 scientists in 67 countries asking for a moratorium on the Artic fishery until the science can establish appropriate fishing levels and a management system. They also warned that as the fishery grows it will invite competition from other nations, such as China.
Nunavut, however, is pressing forward, cautiously and deliberately, to be sure, but forward nonetheless.
It is territorial policy that Nunavut cannot influence climate change, one way or another, and so the emphasis is on adapting to it.
How that adaptation will occur is most obvious here at Pang, as everybody calls it, and especially at the time of my visit, timed to coincide with the arrival of Nuliajuk, a 20-metre, state-of-the-art research vessel commissioned by the territorial government to collect the data needed to make informed choices about the future of the Nunavut fishery.
A ride out to the $5-million vessel to meet Capt. Cecil Bannister proved hair-raising in wind-driven chop. It required four white-knuckle passes in a 24-foot coastal fishing boat to pull alongside Nuliajuk.
I had no sooner jumped aboard from one tossing deck to another than it was decided to abandon ship, so to speak, as worsening weather threatened to leave me and Capt. Bannister doubly stranded -- no way to get ashore to catch an airplane that wasn't coming.
Eventually high and wet ashore, however, we went to the empty airport where Bannister checked in, hoping against hope he could soon begin a leave home. Bannister explained he and a crew of four spend five months each summer ferrying around groups of four scientists studying the fishery while the ship makes charts of the sea floor off Baffin Island and along its coasts, something that has never been done accurately.
In fact, two-century-old British Admiralty charts are so inaccurate that deep harbours can prove to be shallow bays, and bearings on charts often are so wildly inaccurate that were a sailor to trust them he might find himself not at sea but 10 kilometres inland.
Bannister said creating accurate charts is not only a safety issue, reassuring to cruise ship traffic that increasingly is moving into Arctic waters loaded with tourists hoping to see whales and other Arctic wildlife, it is an imperative if Nunavut hopes to understand fish populations and their movements.
But perhaps more important is the scientific research the 120-tonne Nuliajuk makes possible. This year, for example, it has provided a platform to survey Cumberland Sound stocks of turbot, the biggest and richest fishery, primarily selling into China; studying methods to reduce the by-catch of Greenland sharks, a close cousin to Great Whites; and, sampling clam populations to determine their abundance and commercial potential.
On the way from ship to shore, we passed a barge on which a giant crane was working to dredge a harbour around a pier being constructed to handle large fishing vessels. Work was going 24/7 in an effort to have it completed before the barge and crane must be towed to Halifax for the winter.
Three years in the making and an estimated $4 million over its $21-million budget, it will become the first harbour ever built in Nunavut, despite the fact most Nunavummiut live on its coasts and have been fishers for thousands of years.
The harbour is not large enough for the ocean-going trawlers, but it is large enough for costal fishing boats to deliver their catches to the nearby fish-processing plant and to ferry fish from larger ships that could anchor in the fiord.
The Pangnirtung Fisheries Ltd. processing plant, meanwhile, which employs between 20 and 45 people, depending on the season, is retooling to take advantage of an expected increase in fish and changing markets.
In the past, the plant filleted turbot and char on the assumption that fillets are most desirable. But since China discovered the Nunavut fishery -- with its unparalleled "truly wild" and pure product -- the demand for whole turbot (heads and tails removed and sold separately) has led to a decision to mothball a $600,000 filleting machine and to concentrate on whole fish, which sell for about $5.50 a pound, about $1 more per pound than fillets.
Much of the plant's char production goes to niche markets in the U.S. via the Boston fish market. Almost all of its turbot production goes to China, delivery of which underlines the high cost of transportation in the North: It costs $1.25 a pound to move fish from Pang to Montreal, but only 35 cents a pound to move it by truck and freighter from Montreal to China.
While the bulk of the 80,000-tonne turbot catch is taken by trawlers in deep waters far off the coast -- and processed in Greenland as a result of Nunavut's lack of harbours -- a burgeoning inshore fishery is being developed on Baffin Island. The winter fishery last year saw about 80 Pang fishers bring in about $750,000 worth of fish, a significant haul in such a small community, where about 60 per cent of residents rely on social assistance. One fisher alone netted $60,000.
The ice-fishing catch is expected to grow this winter, and next year a summer fishery is to be launched with 10, 20-foot to 30-foot boats plying Cumberland Sound, with the eventual expectation that real wealth will flow from the oceans into the hands of Pang residents.
Then there's the growing shrimp fishery, worth $10 million last year, and the as yet untapped clam and prawn fisheries.
Environmentalist outcries about the future of the fishery are not so much ignored by Nunavummiut as they are taken with a grain of salt. That's because much of the serious research is being conducted by the territory for the express purpose of ensuring meaningful and sustainable economic development, and because commercial quotas are set only after local needs have been determined and satisfied. It's a process that Wayne Lynch, fisheries director, said recognizes "that the true value of the local fishery is that it replaces chicken legs being sent up from the south."
Inuit also remain mistrustful of alarmist warnings as a result of controversial claims several years ago that polar bear populations were shrinking due to predation and climate change, a claim that defied local experience, and scientific evidence, as it turned out.
The idea that it is unnatural for Inuit to be commercial harvesters of the sea also is dismissed.
Pagnirtung, for example, was first settled by Inuit nearly 200 years ago, with the arrival in 1820 of European whaling ships, which provided livelihoods for a century, followed by sealing, which was a sustaining source of income until the Bridget Bardots of the EU succeeded in banning seal products. (The ban does not apply to Inuit seal products but it makes no difference. The European market has dried up.)
Now that the Inuit finally have control of fisheries, including seal, which remain an important protein source, they wonder why it is that their activities are so closely scrutinized when, say, the activities of Japanese whalers are largely ignored.
Pangnirtung Mayor Sakiasie Sowblooapuk said it was deeply satisfying to see the pieces of the fishery puzzle falling into place in his community -- the research vessel, the processing plant and harbour -- an overnight success story that has been 25 years in the making.
What tomorrow brings is uncertain, he said, but the promise is for more of the same, and replicated everywhere from Pond River in the north to Arviat in the south.
In the meantime, he said the region still has an ace up its sleeve -- its astonishing beauty.
"This is my secret tool," he said, looking out at the fiord and its mountainous shoreline. "The scenery will bring people from all over the world."