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German Scientists 'Surprised, Disappointed' After Court Blocks Arctic Plans

German scientists say they’re surprised and disappointed a court has blocked their research plans for ecologically sensitive Arctic waters even though they were granted Canadian permits and met all Canada’s requirements.

And a senior Canadian Arctic scientist says the whole dispute over seismic testing for oil and gas in a part Lancaster Sound being considered for a marine park is a symptom of the country’s confused and disjointed approach to its North.

“Without a real co-ordination and integration of our northern objectives and interests and partnerships, we just keep running into these little icebergs,” said John England, a senior fellow in Arctic research at the University of Alberta.

On Sunday, the Nunavut Court of Justice granted the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s request for an injunction preventing the icebreaker Polarstern, operated by Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, from conducting what officials said were about two days of tests in Lancaster Sound off the north coast of Baffin Island. The researchers had planned to use sound waves to map the ocean floor.

The court agreed with the association that local communities weren’t adequately informed of the plans, which they fear could harm marine mammals such as whales and walrus.

“The Alfred Wegener Institute is surprised and disappointed, as all necessary approvals for the research program concerned were granted, restrictions followed and precautionary measures implemented,” said the Institute in a press release.

“We certainly will respect any decision of Canadian courts and are currently analyzing how the court’s decision will affect the research program of our current expedition.”

Natural Resources Canada officials made no comment Monday about whether the decision would be appealed. But the Polarstern has been at sea for days and is already on Lancaster Sound’s doorstep.

In an interview last week, institute co-director Heinrich Miller said his scientists have been caught between two Canadian government departments, Natural Resources and Environment.

Scientists from Natural Resources Canada, who have been working with the institute for two years on the cruise, have said part of the goal was finding possible oil and gas reserves. That alarmed local Inuit and environmentalists, who had applauded last December when Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced the start of talks to turn the wildlife-rich area into a marine conservation area.

Miller, who has denied the cruise has anything to do with hydrocarbons, described the experience with the Polarstern as frustrating. Canadian officials also failed to keep local communities informed, he said.

England said the confusion is a symptom of a government that hasn’t got an overall idea of what it wants in the Arctic.

“There’s no integrative system in Canada that pulls together all our northern interests,” said England, who wrote an editorial on the subject earlier this year in the journal Nature. “It’s a disparate whole hodgepodge of little hoops which we have to jump over to get research going or get communities onside.

“To me, it’s symptomatic,”said England. “We talk the talk but we’ve never put our house in order and this is one more example of it.”

Meanwhile, scientists say there’s no clear consensus on how seismic tests affect marine mammals, whether it causes physical harm or simply alters their behaviour.

There is evidence animals are harmed by high-frequency sound waves, but very few are sensitive to the low-frequency waves being used by the Polarstern, said Gordon Spence, a seismologist at the University of Victoria.

“A lot of (the concern) may be confusion between the two sound sources,” he said.

Marine geologist Keith Louden from Dalhousie University in Halifax agrees, saying there are clear protocols to follow for seismic tests in marine mammal habitat.

“As far as I know, when that’s done there has not been any evidence for damage,” he said.

However, both acknowledge there are many unknowns in the field and point out the difficulty of doing such research.

“What’s not so well understood is what that sound pressure does the behaviour of marine mammals,” said Louden. “We have to understand something about what their risk is with incomplete knowledge.”