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Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is at odds with Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. over the risk posed by a potentially invasive aquatic worm found nearby the company’s Mary River mine port on north Baffin Island, Nunavut.
According to the department, Baffinland should be developing a response plan to address Marenzelleria, the “high-risk potential aquatic invasive species that has been introduced to Milne Port.”
This comes from a letter DFO submitted to the Nunavut Impact Review Board on Oct. 18 as part of the board’s assessment of Baffinland’s phase two development proposal, which would double the mine’s iron ore production to be shipped out of Milne Inlet, from six million tonnes per year to 12 million.
The board fielded many submissions about the project’s impacts on some of the Arctic’s sentinel species such as caribou and narwhal.
If Baffinland’s expansion is approved, project-related ship traffic will increase substantially.
Currently, Baffinland’s permits do not limit vessel traffic, but the company proposed to limit vessels received at Milne Port to 84 per year, which allows the mine to ship 6 million tonnes of ore — their current permitted production level.
Under its second phase of development, Baffinland said the number of ore carriers at the Milne Port would be doubled to 168 per year. Iron ore is primarily used in steelmaking. Canada is one of the top-producing iron ore countries in the world, producing 58.8 million tonnes in total in 2019, according to Natural Resources Canada. Nine per cent of Canada’s iron ore is produced at the Mary River mine.
Milne Inlet opens off Eclipse Sound, just west of the community of Pond Inlet, and south of Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area — protected for its biodiversity and the critical role it plays in Arctic ecosystems, and its cultural importance to Inuit. Despite this level of protection, the marine region is not immune to the varying threats that shipping presents.
The final hearing for the expansion is currently underway in Iqaluit, with territorial and federal departments — including DFO — participating, as well as Nunavut community representatives, hunters and trappers organizations and environmental organizations.
The hearing wraps up on Saturday with the board expected to release its report on the proposed expansion in the coming months. Final approval rests with the federal Minister of Northern Affairs Canada, Dan Vandal.
Both the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization voiced concerns over invasive species arriving in the ballast water of Baffinland’s ore carriers during a marine monitoring workshop in Pond Inlet in August 2020, according to a letter sent to Baffinland by the review board.
Marenzelleria is a genus of benthic — or bottom-dwelling — worms known to be highly invasive. One or more species of the worms have invaded parts of the Pacific Ocean, North Sea, Baltic Sea, Barents Sea and others.
Ralf Bastrop, a research associate at the University of Rostock, in Germany, has studied worms like Marenzelleria for nearly 30 years. In the Baltic Sea, where several invasive species of the worms have invaded, Bastrop said that in great enough quantities, Marenzelleria can have an impact on water chemistry. By burrowing through the seafloor, the worms expose sediment to oxygen, releasing various nutrients. Depending on the geographic area, burrowing could also lead to the release of poisons like polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), highly toxic synthetic chemicals.
Other scientific papers in the field have discussed the possibility that invasive Marenzelleria and changes to the nutrient cycle could potentially alter local food chains.
But as Bastrop is quick to reinforce, what happens in one marine environment, might not happen in another. “It’s very difficult to say what happens in the Baltic will also happen in the Canadian Arctic.”
Marenzelleria was first found through Baffinland’s monitoring efforts at the company’s Milne Port in 2016, after the mine began shipping ore. Although only a single specimen was found that year, and details about where it was found are unknown, two more were identified in 2017 near the existing ore dock.
The following year, 301 specimens of Marenzelleria were found, some around the ore dock, with the majority located in an estuarine area at the mouth of Phillips Creek on the western side of the inlet. The estuary was not tested again in 2019, but 16 specimens were found that year near the existing dock.
In 2020 the company returned to the western side of the inlet and found 256 specimens, though none were found in the area around the ore dock.
In an email to The Narwhal, Baffinland clarified that targeted sampling in 2020 at locations where Marenzelleria was found in 2019 yielded no specimens to send for analysis.
What sets samples of Marenzelleria found in 2019 and 2020 apart from the previous collections is that they were, at least initially, independently verified by a company called Biologica and the University of Laval as Marenzelleria Viridis — a highly invasive species Baffinland lists as high-risk. Biologica recommended a third expert be consulted to verify the species of the worm.
In an Aug. 17 technical memo, prepared by Golder Associates, Baffinland explained that a third independent reviewer reidentified the marine worms found in Milne Inlet in 2020 as Marenzelleria Arctia — a species native to the Beaufort Sea in the western Arctic that Baffinland does not consider invasive.
Baffinland told The Narwhal that while the worm’s reclassification was based on a visual examination, it was supported with other evidence surveyed in Milne Inlet, including a diversity of bottom-dwelling life, no signs of invasive behaviour and environmental conditions such as water temperature and salinity.
Bastrop agrees that evidence such as temperature and salinity supports the idea that the specimens found are Arctia and not Viridis, though he also acknowledges that visual examinations and a survey of environmental conditions aren’t foolproof.
“The only way to definitely say which species occurs [there] is [through] genetic identification,” Bastrop said.
Baffinland said that samples collected in 2021 are currently being sorted and, should any species of Marenzelleria be found, specimens will be sent to the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding at the University of Guelph for analysis.
In their memo Baffinland also said that they “will treat all identified Marenzelleria specimens as having the potential to be invasive until the classification of [Marenzelleria Arctia] is confirmed through molecular methods.”
But DFO’s position suggests that even if the worms are identified as the Arctia species, there is still reason for concern.
“Regardless of the details concerning the specific species identity, there is clear evidence that all specimens in question are of the Marenzelleria genus. They appeared in close vicinity of the Milne Port ore dock and anchorages, for the first time in 2016, after initiation of project ore-related shipping,” DFO stated in its letter to the board. “Thus, DFO still has concerns about their origins and their potential to become invasive.”
Despite ongoing debates about the specimens collected, during a Nunavut Impact Review Board’s community roundtable session earlier this week, Lou Kamermans, Baffinland’s director of sustainable development, doubled-down on the company’s position that the worms found so far are not invasive.
“To date, we’ve not identified invasives in our monitoring program,“ Kamermans said, in response to a question from a community member.
“There have been times species have been found that we’ve looked at further. But in each case, that’s been ruled out.”
However, DFO notes that Baffinland’s own aquatic invasive species protocol states that “an introduction is considered project-related if a species/taxon was not documented in baseline surveys or if there are no documented occurrences in the Canadian Arctic before the commencement of shipping operations.”
Marenzelleria did not appear in Baffinland’s baseline surveys. But the company explained to The Narwhal that it is not possible for baseline sampling to capture all species living in a given environment, and that the more sampling is conducted, the more are found. As a result, the company said it created and maintains an inventory for Milne Inlet that is updated with newly detected taxa every year and shared with other groups, including DFO.
Without knowing exactly where the Marenzelleria came from, DFO concludes that “as the sole operator at Milne Port, it is reasonable to assume that any new records of Marenzelleria at Milne Port, are attributable to project-related activities.”
Baffinland, however, concludes that “the available evidence suggests that this worm is native to Arctic waters, has a broad Arctic distribution and cannot conclusively be identified as a project-related introduction.”
By the time the second phase would be in operation, Kamermans said new shipping regulations will be in place requiring ballast water exchanges before vessels enter Canadian waters, as well as the treatment of that ballast water.
“For phase two, we have even more confidence that the vessels coming to Milne port won’t be a source of invasives,” Kamermans said, during the board’s community roundtable.
According to Baffinland, DFO will be working alongside Transport Canada to monitor those exchanges.
Updated Nov. 9 at 12:34 p.m. ET: this article was updated to clarify that the production increase for Mary River phase two will go from six million tonnes per year to 12 million tonnes per year.
Updated Nov. 17 at 11:43 a.m. ET: this article was updated to correct that the species found has been suggested to be Marenzelleria Arctia — not Marenzelleria Arctica.
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