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.
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