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Darnley Bay has been declared a National Marine Protected area, bringing Canada's total to 13 such areas.

Laura Morse/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A rich breeding ground for marine mammals, Arctic char and other aquatic species that are vital to Inuvialuit people living along the Beaufort Sea has been named Canada's newest marine protected area.

On Wednesday, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) announced that it has designated a 2,361-square-kilometre swath of coastal waters called Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam, also known as Darnley Bay, for special protection.

Located off the Parry Peninsula, at the western entrance to the Northwest Passage, Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam is known as an exceptionally productive ecosystem. In addition to polar bears, seals and numerous fish and bird species, the area hosts some 40,000 beluga whales every summer – more than a quarter of the world's total population.

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"It's a spectacular place," said Chris Debicki, project director for Oceans North Canada, a campaign co-led by the Pew Charitable Trusts, an environmental advocacy group. "It's habitat that's not only important for marine species but, by extension, for the community."

The designation leaves the area open to hunting by people from the nearby settlement of Paulatuk, Northwest Territories, but restricts activities such as industrial fishing, and oil and gas exploration. Exceptions include navigation, rescue and dredging that may be required to ensure the community is accessible to supply ships. Another possible exception is commercial marine tourism, provided it meets regulatory approval and does not lead to destruction of ocean habitat.

"An activity plan would need to be submitted that would detail the activity and what its likely impact would be," said Cal Wenghofer, a Winnipeg-based division manager with DFO.

The DFO announcement marks the creation of Canada's ninth marine protected area and only the second in Arctic waters. It is, however, only a small step toward Canada's overall commitment to designate 10 per cent of its ocean territory for protection by 2020 under the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. Even after Wednesday's addition, the current total adds up to less than 1.4 per cent.

The area was first identified as a candidate for protection more than a decade ago as part of an integrated management process for the Beaufort region that DFO was conducting at the time.

Mr. Debicki noted that groups representing the Inuvialuit people of the western Arctic, including the Paulatuk Hunters and Trappers Committee played a crucial role in helping set the boundaries of the marine protected area. "Traditional knowledge was able to fill in research gaps and identify significant areas of habitat," he said. "It signals a new approach to conservation in the Arctic where the community role is integral and where harvester input is really important."

Nathan Bennett, a University of British Columbia and Washington University researcher who studies the human dimension of conservation said that the new designation represents an area where the government "has done its homework." But worldwide, concerns are growing that the cordoning off of enormous stretches of ocean to advance marine conservation is failing to take into account the indigenous people who see those waters as essential to their survival.

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