Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary

The Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) is located 13 kilometers north-east of Somerset Island, in Nunavut. It preserves habitat for large colonies of seabirds.

Importance of the sanctuary: migratory birds and other wildlife

Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary is situated in Lancaster Sound, approximately 13 kilometres off the northeastern tip of Cape Clarence, Somerset Island, in Nunavut. This sanctuary is one of the most important multi-species seabird colonies in the Arctic as it supports large numbers of nesting thick-billed murre, northern fulmar, black-legged kittiwake and black guillemot. Prince Leopold Island is also an important site for seabird research, and the monitoring that has been ongoing at this site since 1975 has generated one of the strongest datasets for seabird monitoring in the Arctic. The proposed Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area surrounds Prince Leopold Island.

It is estimated that 6% of Canada’s thick-billed murre population, approximately 100,000 pairs of birds, nest on the Prince Leopold Island sea cliffs. At the end of the breeding season, large numbers of flightless juvenile murres swim from Prince Leopold Island through Lancaster Sound and south to winter off the West Greenland coast and in the Labrador Sea.

Prince Leopold Island also hosts an estimated 11% of the Canadian northern fulmar population, which nest throughout the coastal cliffs around the island (with the exception of the northern coast). These approximately 22,000 breeding pairs represent over half of the northern fulmars that breed in Lancaster Sound. Creswell Bay, located 170 kilometres away at the southern end of Somerset Island, is an important feeding area for Prince Leopold Island’s fulmars.

Northern Fulmar
Northern fulmar at Prince Leopold Island MBS. Photo: Alain Fontaine

Black-legged kittiwake, approximately 29,000 pairs or 16% of Canada’s population, also inhabit Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary between mid-May and late September. These birds nest scattered throughout the thick-billed murre colonies on both the island’s eastern cliffs and in its northeastern corner. The black-legged kittiwakes forage up to 80 kilometres away from Prince Leopold Island along the coast of Somerset Island.

It is also estimated that 5% of the Canadian population, or 4,000 pairs, of Black Guillemot nest in the crevices along the southern and western cliffs of Prince Leopold Island. This is notable as it is one of the largest known groupings of this species in Canada.

All of the breeding seabirds that are present in the sanctuary from mid-May to mid-September disperse shortly after breeding. The majority of them migrate southward to the Arctic Circle, although some of the black guillemots may overwinter in the high Arctic.

Did you know?

Sea birds spend expended periods of time at sea; they eat food that they catch from the salt waters and when thirsty they drink seawater. In order to survive in such a salty environment these birds have developed their very own desalinization system called “salt glands”. The ingested salt is excreted through these glands in a highly concentrated liquid through their nostrils. Some birds will shake their head or “sneeze” to help force out this salty solution.

In addition to the breeding seabirds, the sanctuary is also important for six other species of breeding birds. Five of these species, namely brant, common eider, parasitic jaeger, common raven and snow bunting, all breed here in small numbers. An estimated 75 pairs of glaucous-winged gulls also nest throughout the seabird colonies. These birds prey on the eggs, chicks and sometimes even the adults of other species, and their predation can have a significant effect on the breeding success of the other birds, particularly murres.

With the exception of a small collared lemming population, there are no resident populations of terrestrial mammals on Prince Leopold Island.

Nonetheless, several transient mammals have been recorded on the island including peary caribou, arctic hare, arctic fox and polar bear. Marine mammals, on the other hand, are plentiful in the waters surrounding the island.


The Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, established in 1992, encompasses the entirety of Prince Leopold Island as well as all waters within five kilometres of the shore. Located 150 kilometres southeast of Resolute Bay and 175 kilometres northwest of Arctic Bay, this island rises steeply from the waters surrounding it. Sandstone and limestone cliffs, between 245 to 265 metres above sea level, jut out of Parry Channel to form a flat-topped, approximately 64 square kilometre island. The ledges and crevices formed from the eroding layers of sedimentary rock provide ideal nesting habitat for the variety of seabirds that flock to the island each summer.

Prince Leopold Island MBS

Due to the early spring break-up of ice in the waters adjacent to the island, phytoplankton and zooplankton bloom much earlier in this area than in other areas of the high Arctic. The strong currents in Barrow Strait and Lancaster Sound also bring in nutrient from other areas, further enhancing the productivity of the rich marine region around the sanctuary. This provides an abundance of food for fish and crustaceans, which are in turn eaten by seabirds. A variety of marine mammals are also attracted to these open waters including beluga, bowhead whale, narwhal, walrus, ringed seal and bearded seal.

Map of the area

Map of Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary
  • Long description

    Map showing the location of the Prince Leopold Island in relation to Nunavut, Prince Leopold Island, Somerset Island, Parry Channel, Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait. The maps shows the boundaries of the refuge, which covers the Prince Leopold Island and part of the nearby waters. The scale of the map is in kilometers. Permanent waters are shown on the map. An inset on the map shows the location of the shelter in Canada.

Access to the sanctuary

Management of Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, such as Prince Leopold Island, are established across the country to protect migratory birds during critical periods of their life cycle. Whether these areas are used for feeding, resting or nesting, they play an important role in the survival of many species.

Entry and access to most Migratory Bird Sanctuaries is not restricted, however the Migratory Bird Sanctuary Regulations set out the activities that are prohibited. The Minister of Environment has the authority to authorize or permit activities in Migratory Bird Sanctuaries that are otherwise prohibited.

Prince Leopold Island MBS is managed by the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Inuit from Resolute Bay, Nunavut, as part of a co-management agreement established through the Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement for National Wildlife Areas and Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in the Nunavut Settlement Area(IIBA). The Sulukvaut Area Co-Management Committee (ACMC) was formed through the IIBA and provides advice on all aspects of the MBS, permit applications, research conducted within the MBS, visitor use of the area, and management and protection of migratory birds and bird habitat. In Nunavut, Nunavut Inuit, as per the Nunavut Agreement (NA), can hunt wildlife, including the collection of migratory bird eggs and feathers for their economic, social and cultural needs (Section 5 of the NA). Access to Prince Leopold Island MBS by anyone other than Inuit enrolled under the NA is restricted; therefore, any non-Inuit must obtain a permit to access or conduct any activity within the MBS. Activities that may be permitted will be in accordance with the conservation objectives of the MBS management plan.

If you would like further information on what is permitted in Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, please visit the Management and Activities section of the website. More information on access and permitting for Prince Leopold Island MBS can be obtained by contacting the Environment and Climate Change Canada regional office.

Summary table

Key facts about Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Category Information
Protected Area designation Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Province or territory Nunavut
Latitude/longitude 74°02' N, 90°00' W
Size 30,600 hectares including more than 24,000 hectares of marine habitat
Reason for creation of protected area To protect nesting sites of Thick-billed Murres, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmar, and Black Guillemot.
Date created (Gazetted) 1992
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Management Category Wilderness Area (Ib)
Additional designations
  • Prince Leopold Island Important Bird Area
  • Prince Leopold Island International Biological Programme (site 1-5)
Main habitat type
  • Open water (80%)
  • Vertical sandstone and limestone (20%)
Keystone or flagship species
Listed species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA)
Invasive Species None Confirmed
Other species



Management agency Canadian Wildlife Service, Northern Region, in collaboration with the Sulukvaut Co-Management Committee of Resolute Bay
Public access and usage Nunavut Inuit have a free and unrestricted right of access for the purpose of harvesting to all lands, waters, and marine areas within the MBS, as per Article 5 of the IIBA and subject to s.5.7.18 of the Nunavut Agreement.

For all non-Nunavut Inuit, a permit may be required to access or conduct activities in the MBS, particularly if firearms will be carried and/or migratory birds may be disturbed.

Contact us

Environment and Climate Change Canada – Northern Region
Canadian Wildlife Service
Protected Areas and Stewardship
Eastern Arctic Unit
P.O. Box 1870
Iqaluit NU X0A 0H0
Telephone: 867-975-4642
Toll Free: 1-800-668-6767 (in Canada only)

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