Working with a Nunavut island community to build a sustainable ‘blue economy’

An Inuit community on a remote island chain in the southeastern corner of Hudson Bay is once again looking to the sea to provide for the community, as it has for centuries.

Nestled among the two-billion-year-old folds of sedimentary rock, basalt and iron known as the Belcher Islands, Sanikiluaq is a partner in WWF-Canada’s community-based fisheries program.

WWF-Canada has been working with Nunavut communities towards building a sustainable “blue economy” — which is an ocean-based economy incorporating not only financial prosperity but also positive impacts for communities and ecosystems — through development of small-scale commercial fisheries.

Two Inuit fisherman smiling in the sunshine while conducting research samplessamples for
Sanikiluaq residents Sala Iqaluq and Sali Paau Kuki conducting harvest sampling near Belcher Islands, NU on Oct 16, 2021 © Doug Chiasson

As with many Inuit communities, Sanikiluaq residents harvest much of their food from the sea, including seal, walrus, beluga and Arctic char. Sanikiluarmiut also look deeper when it comes to seafood, and it isn’t uncommon for mussels, scallops, sea stars, sea urchins or sea cucumbers to be on the dinner table or over the cooking fire.

Working with communities like Sanikiluaq to develop sustainable economic activities like small-scale fisheries is especially important because there are few other economic options. There are some carvers, weavers and people who make winter clothing stuffed with eiderdown. There are also existing mining leases for iron on the Islands, but the community has strongly opposed development of a mine.

But a small-scale commercial fishery will allow local harvesters to make the community more food secure, not only by harvesting shellfish but by providing income which can be put towards costs that come with harvesting other country food like fuel, ammunition, boats and ATVs.

Starting in 2019, WWF-Canada and our research partners at the Université de Québec à Rimouski and Memorial University in Newfoundland have been working to better understand the scallop, sea urchin and sea cucumber populations around the Belcher Islands.

Mussels, sea cucumbers and other fishery harvest samples
Harvest samples around the Belcher Islands, NU © Doug Chiasson

This includes doing biological sampling and doing underwater video surveys of potentially abundant areas for these species. We have also sampled mussels, sea cucumbers and urchins from areas that are important to the community’s subsistence harvest to also contribute to their understanding of those areas.

After our first harvesting surveys in 2019, planning began in earnest for the 2020 open-water season. But as with every other facet of our lives, it was disrupted by the pandemic. This was especially true for Sanikiluaq, which was the site of Nunavut’s first confirmed COVID cases. Thankfully, by coordinating with partners at the local Hunter and Trappers Association, samples for 2020 were still able to be collected.

Fast forward to 2021 and travel restrictions were loosened, allowing our staff and partners from southern Canada to travel once again to Sanikiluaq. This trip was an opportunity to meet with our partners at the local Hunter and Trappers Association board and hold an open meeting for all members of the community as well as doing more harvest sampling.

Hearing from community members, Elders and hunters about where our target species can be found is essential to our research. Helping our researchers understand the currents, flows and how ice forms in particular areas help us understand the locations with the most ideal conditions for shellfish habitat.

Establishing a sustainable small-scale fishery in Sanikiluaq that draws on fisheries research expertise from academic partners and the collective knowledge of local hunters and harvesters is an essential demonstration of the potential for a blue economy in Nunavut.

By working together, this research can underpin decades of sustainable economic activity in Sanikiluaq while reinforcing traditional subsistence harvesting.