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Voisey's Bay Mine and Mill Environmental Assessment Panel Report

11 Marine Mammals

VBNC focused its assessment on the marine mammals it identified as valued ecosystem components (VECs). Seals, as top predators, were considered indicators of the ecological integrity of the Landscape Region. Harp, ringed, harbour and bearded seals were selected as VECs. Harp and ringed seals are culturally valued and important as country food; they are also sold commercially. Minke whales were selected as the most common whale in the region. Beluga whales and polar bears were considered as species of special conservation status, due to the status the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has given them. The proposed shipping route lies in the range of all of these marine mammals.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) manages marine mammals under the Fisheries Act. There are no compliance monitoring requirements for the proposed Project activities as they affect marine mammals.

The provincial Forestry and Wildlife Branch manages polar bears under the Wildlife Act. There are no compliance monitoring requirements for the proposed Project activities as they affect polar bears.

11.1 Seals and Whales

11.1.1 VBNC Assessment

VBNC conducted numerous marine mammal surveys, including spring surveys of seal whelping areas, near the shipping route and in the inner bays and islands near the Project site. Underwater noise was modelled to assess potential impacts of shipping on ringed seals.

Harp seals are abundant along the shipping route in summer but are not abundant in the Landscape Region during the period of ice cover. Only a small portion of the northwest Atlantic population is present in the region at any one time. Ringed seals, also abundant along the shipping route, are present year round in the Landscape Region. Spring surveys indicated that ringed seals are particularly abundant in the area east of Voisey's Bay and south of the shipping route, an area thought to be an important nursery area. VBNC observed significant densities along the shipping route near the ice edge, with lower densities in the bays. Ringed seals maintain breathing holes under the fast ice and also congregate along the edge of the fast ice. Polynyas, floe edges and leads in the ice provide important habitat. During the open water season, ringed seals come into the bays to feed.

Bearded seals and harbour seals are present year round in the Landscape Region. Bearded seals are benthic feeders and occur at low densities near areas of open water and partial ice cover. Harbour seals are non-migratory fish eaters; they are thought to overwinter where currents maintain open water. Whelping occurs in coastal areas, reportedly in June.

Minke whales are migratory and are rarely present in the Landscape Region in winter. They feed inshore on fish and crustaceans. Beluga whales appear sporadically along the north coast of Labrador in spring, as far south as Makkovik, mainly near the edge of the fast ice. They are part of at least two populations, the Ungava Bay and southeast Baffin Island-Cumberland Sound populations, whose ranges VBNC selected as the beluga whale assessment area. COSEWIC has classified both beluga populations as endangered.

VBNC identified the potential effects of the Project on marine mammals as follows.


Sources of noise would include vessel traffic, aircraft and construction at the port site. VBNC modelling indicated that ringed seals can detect noise in water up to several tens of kilometres away. Seals may suffer temporary hearing loss within 100 m of a vessel travelling through ice, and they display avoidance behaviour at 500 to 700 m. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) stated that the effect on whales is similar, but it did not explain why or which species are affected. However, the EIS also stated that avoidance behaviour in belugas can occur tens of kilometres away from large vessel traffic. VBNC identified two potential effects of vessel traffic on seals and whales: temporary displacement behaviour and diminished reception of signals due to masking effects. The effects of aircraft noise in water are highly localized and transitory, but startle effect and avoidance are reported at elevations below 500 m for seals on the surface of the ice or water, or on beaches. Seals and whales would likely reduce the time they spend in Edward's Cove or avoid it altogether, especially during construction. VBNC predicts that only a small proportion of any population would temporarily experience noise disturbance and that it would do so in non-critical areas.

Ice Disturbance

Experience elsewhere suggests that seals may be attracted to a ship track in ice, or avoid it. The Project could deter seals from remaining in Edward's Cove during the winter. Mortality from collisions would result only if seals had nowhere to escape. This is not likely, because seals are agile and maintain multiple holes. They could be more vulnerable during whelping, but VBNC stated that shipping would not occur then. The potential for hinge ice collapse caused by shipping is considered small, and such a collapse would affect only a small proportion of any marine mammal population.

Whales are not present in the Landscape Region in winter and winter shipping would not affect them.

Accidental Events

An oil spill is the key accidental event that could affect seals and whales. They could be exposed to a spill directly or by feeding on oiled prey. In most cases, they could avoid a spill. Harbour seals are the most vulnerable marine mammals because they are the most likely to haul out on shorelines, which could be oiled. Ringed seals would be vulnerable during whelping, but VBNC states that shipping would not occur then. Seals and whales can tolerate ingestion of small quantities of oil because they are able to metabolize hydrocarbons, and whales' baleen functions are not impaired. Thus, although some seals and whales could come in contact with an oil spill if it occurred, the effects are not considered lethal, and only a small proportion of any population would be affected.

A concentrate spill would expose marine mammals to elevated levels of nickel and copper in prey species, but VBNC predicts that marine mammals' ability to regulate their levels of those metals would prevent deleterious effects.

Based on contaminant modelling (see Chapter 7), VBNC predicts that bioaccumulation of metals in marine mammals would not cause an adverse effect.

VBNC has proposed the following mitigation measures:

  • icebreaking mitigation measures and a restricted shipping schedule;
  • traffic control and navigational aids in the shipping lane to ensure safe passage, which would reduce the risk of accidental events affecting marine mammals;
  • surveys to detect the presence of marine mammals, conducted before construction blasting at the port site;
  • training of site personnel to manage encounters so as to reduce disturbances; and
  • oil spill contingency plans.

VBNC predicted that construction, operation and accidental effects would have minor residual effects on seals and whales, and that decommissioning would have negligible effects. Residual effects on beluga whales were predicted to be negligible during all phases of the Project.

11.1.2 Government and Public Concerns

DFO expressed concerns about VBNC's choice of scale and method, along with specific concerns about the validity of its assessment and predictions. The Department suggested that the assessment area was not large enough as it did not include the pack ice area beyond the outer islands, which is important habitat for some species, including bearded seals. It questioned whether population-level effects were the appropriate criterion for impact significance, noting that, while it agreed with the EIS significance ratings at that level, significant problems such as localized depletion or avoidance could also occur on a regional scale.

DFO asserted that not enough information exists about marine mammals and their requirements to establish a benchmark or baseline, and therefore uncertainty is a significant problem, which VBNC did not sufficiently acknowledge in making its predictions. Baseline deficiencies include lack of information on population definition, abundance, structure, dynamics and critical life history requirements, especially for the resident ringed seal population, which is potentially the most vulnerable to disturbance by the Project. Despite Project-specific predictions of insignificant impact, DFO is concerned that increased industrial development in the region in the long run could cause adverse effects, and that the environmental assessment process does not appear to provide adequate means of addressing this problem.

DFO acknowledged that VBNC had done considerable survey research, but asserted that it did not interpret its results in context. It stated that there was inadequate consideration of potential productivity "hot spots," such as the landfast ice edge and the pack ice/open water edge, and of the implications of shipping for the marine food chain and marine mammal habitat.

With respect to noise, DFO noted that VBNC had only modelled sound for an ore carrier in fast ice, not for the cavitation effects of an icebreaker and not for shipping in pack ice. DFO did not question the appropriateness or results of the modelling, but it noted that there are many uncertainties about how marine mammals respond to underwater noise from vessel traffic. This uncertainty applies particularly to the relation between short-term behavioural response and long-term well-being, the extent of adjustment and habituation, and the functions of vocalization and, hence, the effects of masking. DFO suggested that disturbance studies are needed to examine the long-term effects of noise, and to establish whether startle effects and temporary displacement disrupt feeding and breeding behaviour. DFO also suggested that there is a particular need to assess the effects of noise in Edward's Cove.

DFO suggested that an oil spill could have more serious effects at the regional level on marine mammals and their habitat than VBNC suggests, although it did not provide any detailed suggestions as to why this might be so. It also noted that VBNC's modelling of concentrate spills did not represent the places where the greatest dispersion of concentrates might occur, and hence did not constitute a worst case scenario. DFO also stated that VBNC had not adequately considered the toxicological effects of recurrent but non-catastrophic events.

DFO emphasized the need for VBNC to commit to mitigative shipping strategies, including flexibility of shipping schedules to accommodate year-to-year variability in ice conditions related to marine mammal requirements. DFO noted the need for a monitoring program for marine mammals that is well planned, cost effective and driven by hypotheses. Specifically, the department recommended that further studies be done to

  • provide a broad overview of subarctic marine ecosystem dynamics, and critical life history requirements of marine mammals, on the northern Labrador coast;
  • verify noise predictions;
  • determine shipping impacts on the physical integrity of landfast ice habitat;
  • evaluate the significance of the landfast ice edge and the pack ice as marine mammal feeding areas;
  • improve oil spill modelling, with specific emphasis on the effects of VBNC's pack ice spill scenario on marine mammals; and
  • determine the cumulative effects of shipping on marine mammals.

Inuit experts, on behalf of the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA), questioned VBNC's understanding of the dynamics and complexity of the marine environment. They noted that all of Anaktalak Bay is a habitat for ringed, harp, bearded, harbour and grey seals. In general, they said that bearded seals are more common in the area than the EIS suggested. During the open water period, minke, beluga and humpback whales, along with narwhals, use Anaktalak Bay, and LIA stated that the EIS did not sufficiently recognize this fact. Ringed seals make increased use of Anaktalak Bay in winter on occasions when the sina is close to shore, and LIA experts raised concerns that discharging warmer effluent water there would reduce ice cover. While stating that shipping would adversely affect the fast ice environment, they suggested that the drift and saltation of dust particles would also cause the ice to disintegrate earlier in the spring, by increasing absorption of solar radiation. They stated that the seal whelping period occurs from late February to early April, so the proposed shipping schedule could cause mothers to abandon their young, and otherwise increase the risk of collision and mortality. This is a particular concern off the south and east coasts of Paul's Island, which are core seal hunting areas in spring because they are easy to reach from Nain.

LIA stated that a cooperative understanding of these matters was needed to develop appropriate and effective mitigation measures.

In response, VBNC noted that it assessed marine mammal populations at the Landscape Region level, not over their entire range. Most ranges are much larger than the Landscape Region, and no populations are largely confined to the Landscape Region, or to the Project's likely zones of influence, at any one time. Consequently, VBNC believes its predictions err on the side of caution. These predictions also take uncertainty into account, according to Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) criteria.

VBNC considers that no additional research is required on pack ice impacts, as it regards this environment as outside the assessment area and believes the effects of shipping on it would be trivial.

VBNC noted that the additional noise generated by an icebreaker accompanying an ore carrier would not be significant, except during certain operations that would generate cavitation noise. VBNC stated that its noise modelling did not require further refinement and that it would be better to study the actual effects of noise on marine mammals, especially seals. It therefore supported the idea of a tightly focused study on ringed seals' response to winter shipping, and suggested this be incorporated into the monitoring framework. VBNC suggested that seals are adaptive to noise and therefore resilient, noting that they can distinguish between threatening and non-threatening noise, and that they live successfully with noises such as moving ice. VBNC suggested that no further studies at Edward's Cove were warranted, especially with regard to aircraft noise, which it regards as having trivial effects. The company also stated that it had considered the cumulative effects of shipping on marine mammals as prescribed by CEAA, and that considering further effects would not produce meaningful results.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Panel considers that the population status, life history and habitat requirements of most marine mammal species in the Landscape Region are not well understood, particularly with respect to understanding the overall significance of the assessment area to marine mammal populations. The Panel also recognizes that VBNC did considerable baseline research on marine mammals within the assessment area, which has contributed to the knowledge base.

The Panel considers that the basic regional research required to provide the necessary context for VBNC's assessment studies should not be the responsibility of an individual proponent. That is a public obligation, and DFO should receive adequate resources to do this research regularly. The Panel agrees that DFO's recommended studies would help provide context and baseline information, but considers that most of these studies are appropriately DFO's responsibility as manager of Canada's oceans and their fishery and marine mammal resources. The Panel recognizes that budgets for government environmental management agencies, including DFO, have been severely constrained in recent years. Nonetheless, if there is a public benefit to frontier resource development, then there is a public obligation to ensure that research required to ensure environmental sustainability is done in an orderly fashion. It is neither reasonable nor productive to put this burden on the first proponent in an area.

Recommendation 47

The Panel recommends that DFO fund, conduct or sponsor additional marine mammal studies that contribute to the understanding of cumulative and Project effects, and that Canada provide DFO with the resources necessary to do so. These studies should include regional research, and general studies of noise and ice effects.

LIA should be involved in the design and conduct of these studies, which should be subject to the review and recommendations of the Environmental Advisory Board.

VBNC should be responsible for monitoring effects related to Project impacts.

Winter shipping in the region is novel, and the Project would substantially increase the level of open water shipping. Winter shipping is by no means novel in other parts of the Arctic, however. No evidence was provided to the Panel that either winter or open water shipping, at the level proposed for this Project and adhering to current regulations and safety standards, has had clear or consistent adverse effects on marine mammal populations elsewhere. The Panel does not consider that this Project would significantly affect marine mammal populations, but the effects of increased shipping for several purposes over the long term could be significant. For that reason, predictions of minor or negligible impact with respect to this Project should not rule out long-term monitoring. Continuing studies and monitoring would be required, not only for adaptive management of this Project, but to better understand the possible long-term effects of increased activity.

The EIS provided sufficient material for review at the hearings, but future monitoring would require further baseline research. Fortunately, there is time to do useful studies and trials before winter shipping is proposed to begin. These should be done, and they should be provided for as part of the shipping agreement (see Recommendation 97). A cooperative approach involving the Environmental Advisory Board (EAB) would be essential.

The Panel agrees that the effects of noise on marine mammals need to be better understood. The Panel notes that not even the likely responses of marine mammals to noise have been clearly established, let alone the meaning of those responses at the individual or population level. It has not been clearly established whether marine mammals are sufficiently resilient, through compensating behaviour or habituation, to noise at the levels that the Project would likely generate. There should be more studies, especially on long-term and population-level effects, and on whether immediate behavioural effects result in stress or disturbance affecting critical life stages. In addition, no evidence was presented to show that there could be adverse effects at the population level, or that cumulative noise effects could impair the health or function of individual animals. Noise would be temporary and occasional, and any adverse effects would occur sufficiently close to the noise source that only small numbers of the population could be affected at any time. The Panel considers that VBNC should conduct appropriate studies in the context of shipping, although it might not be necessary for the company to complete such studies before beginning shipping.

The Panel considers that winter shipping could impair the physical integrity of fast ice. It was not clearly established, however, that this would have any significant adverse effects on marine mammals. As Inuit participants noted, in the immediate area of the shipping lane, hinge ice might crush seals and seal dens might collapse, although direct collisions involving adult seals seem unlikely. However, the whelping period for ringed seals was not clearly established and further investigation is needed to prevent adverse effects. Although, in winter, only a very small proportion of the ringed seal population inhabits the proposed ship track, that track could be critical habitat for those animals at that time. The Panel notes that the shipping route traverses some parts of the ringed seal habitat to which Nain residents have the easiest access, and considers that measures to avoid these areas at certain times and to minimize the effects of vessel traffic at others would be essential (see Recommendation 39).

Recommendation 48

The Panel recommends that VBNC determine, in cooperation with LIA, ringed seal whelping times near the shipping route, before beginning winter shipping.

The Panel considers that seals and whales are likely to avoid oil spills, and notes that they can tolerate spilled oil to some extent. If lethal effects should occur, only an insignificant proportion of any population would be affected. The Panel does not see much utility in doing modelling studies or scenarios on the impact of spills on marine mammals; however, if a spill occurred, there should be provisions in place to study its effects, and the effectiveness of response measures, without delay (see Recommendation 43).

The Panel agrees that metals released to the environment as a result of Project activities would be unlikely to affect marine mammals adversely, especially as few individual animals would be present in the area long enough to be exposed at harmful levels. However, metal levels in marine mammals should be monitored as part of the larger contaminant monitoring program recommended in Chapter 7.

11.2 Polar Bears

11.2.1 VBNC Assessment

VBNC did not conduct any specific studies on polar bears, although it recorded incidental observations made during other exploration and scientific activities.

Polar bears on the Labrador coast are part of the Davis Strait population, whose range was used as the assessment area. VBNC stated that this population is currently estimated at 1,200, but only a small part of it is present on the Labrador coast at any one time, and generally only from March to August. Individuals drift south with the pack ice and then come ashore and travel north along the coast. Denning has been known to occur east of Paul's Island, close to the proposed shipping route. Polar bears feed in the Landscape Region, chiefly on seals. COSEWIC has classified the species as vulnerable but considers the Davis Strait population to be stable. There have been no direct encounters between bears and humans during VBNC exploration activities.

VBNC identified the following potential effects of the Project on polar bears:

  • physical alteration or loss of habitat caused by disruption of seals or seal habitat by winter shipping;
  • disturbance caused by noise, Project activities and human presence (VBNC noted experience elsewhere showed both avoidance of and habituation to these effects, and the company suggested that the Project would attract animals, although they might temporarily avoid icebreaking vessels);
  • an increase in encounters between humans and bears, as polar bears can be attracted to human settlement; and
  • mortality of individuals due to direct contact with oil or through ingestion of oil-killed birds, fish or seals, if an oil spill were to happen at sea.
  • Based on contaminant modelling (Chapter 7), bioaccumulation of metals in marine mammals is not considered a potential adverse effect.
  • VBNC has proposed the following mitigation measures:
  • implementation of an oil spill contingency plan; and
  • development of a polar bear relocation plan to deal with human safety concerns or fuel spills (VBNC indicated that it was prepared to pay for this program).

VBNC predicted residual effects of oil spills would be minor (not significant) and all other effects would be negligible.

11.2.2 Public Concerns

LIA did not consider that winter shipping would have detrimental effects at the population level, but expressed concerns about the localized effects of shipping on bears and bear habitat along the shipping route. These localized effects, it suggested, could result from disruption or displacement of seals in the vicinity, from catastrophic or chronic marine oil spills, and from increased human presence (due to exploration in the Kiglapait area as well as shipping activities), which could result in problem kills. In particular, LIA observed bears would emerge from dens during the icebreaking period. Concerns about loss of harvest opportunities are addressed in Chapter 14. However, LIA also noted that, although polar bears are nominally under the jurisdiction of the provincial Wildlife Act, offshore jurisdiction is unclear. Perhaps more importantly, effective enforcement capacity is lacking. LIA recommended establishing a polar bear management zone in northern Labrador that would include the shipping route, and establishing measures relating to habitat protection, monitoring and compensation.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Panel observes that COSEWIC's current draft status report on polar bears indicates that the Davis Strait population estimate of 1,400 animals is outdated, is of only fair quality and suffers from a moderate degree of bias. Whether the population is actually stable is uncertain, although some indications show that it is increasing and is not detrimentally affected by current harvest levels. The Panel agrees with VBNC's prediction that Project activities, other than oil spills, would have negligible population-level effects on polar bears, if VBNC carries out its mitigation measures and adheres to the appropriate environmental protection plans.

Recommendation 49

The Panel recommends that VBNC develop contingency plans for dealing with the effects of oil spills or chronic pollution on polar bears, and for encounters between humans and bears. These should be developed in cooperation with LIA in the context of the proposed shipping agreement, and LIA should advise VBNC in a timely manner of any polar bear denning activity near the shipping route.

The Panel considers that, because human activities are increasing in the area, clear jurisdiction and effective enforcement are required to ensure conservation, especially because polar bears are a vulnerable species. In view of existing quota limits on polar bear harvesting, the Panel recognizes that any polar bear mortality caused by Project activities would have adverse economic effects on Aboriginal harvesters.

Recommendation 50

The Panel recommends that Canada and the Province act to clarify jurisdiction over polar bears off the Labrador coast. The responsible party should enhance its enforcement capability. It should also establish an effective reporting system for problem kills, such as the system that exists in the Northwest Territories, to ensure conservation and to use as a basis for the compensation recommended in Chapter 14.