Before the Ice Melts: Experts Discuss Proactive Protection of the Arctic Ocean in Anticipation of Climate Change

MPA News

Conservation of ocean resources is typically a reactive exercise. Managers respond to the degradation of ecosystems or depletion of species by taking steps to try to restore what was there before. Most MPAs are, in essence, an attempt to re-establish a more "natural" state where human activity has already had an impact.

Ecologically, the ideal conservation method would be proactive: protecting a natural state before it is significantly impacted by human activity. Opportunities for proactive management are relatively rare, however. More and more of the global ocean is the site of human activity - fishing, shipping, oil and gas drilling, etc. - even, increasingly, the deep sea. Once such activity is underway in a particular region, it becomes politically difficult for managers to place limits on it.

The Arctic Ocean presents an unusual opportunity for proactive conservation on a grand scale. With climate change, the ice-covered Arctic is melting. According to simulations of ice decline based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios, the region could be free of summer ice by 2040 in the worst-case scenario of warming. This development is expected to open up lucrative opportunities for industry: virgin fishing grounds; a shorter shipping route (the Northwest Passage) between the Pacific Ocean and Europe; and major new drilling fields for petroleum. In fact, the petroleum fields - totaling as much as 25% of global undiscovered reserves, according to some estimates - are a primary driver behind Russia's recent claim of jurisdiction over much of the Arctic Ocean [see box "National claims to the Arctic seabed" at the end of this article].

Is there an opportunity to establish a management regime across the Arctic Ocean before these activities commence? If so, what would such a regime look like? In recognition of the ongoing International Polar Year, MPA News asked experts this month for their views, including on the idea of designating an MPA across the entire Arctic Ocean. Their responses are below.

Voluntary moratorium on resource exploitation in the Arctic: David Hik

David Hik is professor and Canada research chair in Northern Ecology at the University of Alberta, Canada. He is also executive director of the Canadian International Polar Year Secretariat.

"A single, enormous protected area is unlikely. I expect each country will keep jurisdiction over its EEZ, but will enter into co-management agreements with other Arctic Ocean rim nations (and other nations with Arctic interests). Issues of enforcement and regulation will probably need to be managed through an international body created for this purpose. Whether this could be done as part of a comprehensive Arctic treaty or through a regional resource management organization is unresolved, but some creative solutions may surface during negotiations.

"What is required first of all is the commitment to protect Arctic marine environments and resources. This commitment needs to be adopted by Arctic rim and other nations. The Arctic Council [an existing intergovernmental forum for Arctic governments and peoples - http://www.arctic-council.org] could possibly play an important role in securing this commitment. Perhaps the first step would be a voluntary moratorium on resource exploitation in the Arctic Ocean until (a) the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) claim adjudication process is completed, and (b) a framework for discussion, protection, and development can be reached.

"The outcome of UNCLOS claims is a risk and an opportunity. If the territorial claims are handled as an opportunity simply for nations to extend their jurisdiction, then the entire conservation process may not get very far. However, the complex nature of the UNCLOS claims may also provide a catalyst for rim nations to agree that co-management is a preferable outcome. The Arctic Council, including the increasing number of observer states, may be in a position to help reach a consensus.

"My guess is that the best opportunity to negotiate such a regime will be during the period of UNCLOS assessment as claims are evaluated. The issues surrounding territorial claims and management of resources will be magnified, and it might be possible to reach a more comprehensive agreement, one that would embrace the concept of sustainable management through a cooperative international regime. This would allow some regime to be put into place within 10 years. By that time we should have substantially better knowledge about Arctic marine resources, and the viability of shipping and resource exploration in the Arctic basin will have been more comprehensively assessed.

"An undesirable outcome would be an escalating and competitive race to divide the spoils of the Arctic Ocean. This would be a disaster for the entire region."

Large MPAs in the Russian Arctic: Konstantin Zgurovsky and Vassily Spiridonov

Konstantin Zgurovsky is marine program coordinator for WWF-Russia, and Vassily Spiridonov oversees marine biodiversity conservation projects for the same organization. They manage a project to address several issues of relevance to the Russian Arctic as a response to climate change, including MPAs and sustainable fisheries.

"The idea of designating the Russian Arctic as one large protected area is unrealistic due to a variety of conditions. When speaking about Russia, one should always bear in mind that internally there is a very strong bureaucracy but a lack of interdepartmental links and cooperation. Thus, a single institution may block any initiative if it does not fit its particular interests.

"However, WWF-Russia is thinking about developing a series of specially protected nature areas associated with sensitive biotopes - such as offshore polynyas (semipermanent areas of open water in sea ice), and estuaries and laidas (saltmarshes) inshore. In these cases, the resulting protected areas could still be quite large. For example, an area with a special shipping regime in the Great Siberian Polynya or a national park in the Novosibirskie Islands [northern Siberia] might each be as large as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

"WWF-Russia is working with different governmental structures - the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Agriculture - on creation of a new system of protected areas across Russia, including MPAs, Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (MPA News 3:8), fisheries refuges, 'no-go zones', etc. But in cases of overlap of these areas with oil and gas fields, it would be very hard to convince government to limit any human activities there.

"Ideally, something like the Antarctic Treaty system would be desirable to tackle emerging environmental and resources issues across the Arctic Ocean as whole. [Editor's note: This reference is to the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR, which features an intergovernmental body to manage resources of the Southern Ocean. MPA News reported on CCAMLR in October 2006 ("Examining the Role of MPAs in Ecosystem-Based Management", MPA News 8:4).] However, politically it is not achievable in the near future, considering the contradictory interests of different countries in the Arctic. The CCAMLR model unfortunately will not work there. But the Arctic Council should be made stronger, and cooperation between countries, international bodies, and NGOs should be considerably intensified."

Entire Canadian Arctic Ocean should be an MPA: Louis Fortier

Louis Fortier is professor of Biology at Laval University in Canada, and is scientific director of ArcticNet, a network of Arctic scientists (http://www.arcticnet-ulaval.ca).

"The area encompassed by the Canadian Arctic Ocean is enormous and still inaccessible, and much of it - like the waters of the Canadian Archipelago and the coastal Arctic Ocean including Northern Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay - is under the jurisdiction of different Inuit (aboriginal) governance bodies. A regional resource management organization would be essential, and whatever is done will require the involvement of the Inuit and land-claim organizations.

"Given that the Canadian Arctic Ocean has been relatively little-used before except for traditional Inuit use and oil/gas exploration, you do not have to kick out any well-established fishing or shipping industry. Hence, instead of delineating MPAs within the Canadian Arctic Ocean, I would make it an enormous MPA, within which I would delineate less protected areas. First of all, you would need to protect, as much as possible, the traditional rights of the Inuit and limit the harvesting of wildlife for them only in blatant cases of overexploitation and with their negotiated agreement (as is done with the polar bear and the beluga in some regions of the Canadian North). Then some areas would be opened to some activities - for example, the Northwest Passage to navigation; different regions for tourism; some sectors of the western Arctic for oil and gas exploration/exploitation.

"The Canadian Arctic Ocean at this time is an immense desert with some hotspots or oases: the North Water, Coburg Island, the region of Cape Bathurst, etc. Hence, within this large MPA, some regions of particular importance to biology and to Inuit culture would get special additional protection. It would be of the utmost importance to convince the communities and governance bodies of the North of the importance, benefits, and power that an MPA scheme would provide to them.

"The Arctic world will become much more accessible to shipping and exploitation within the next 30 years. We need to start thinking about protecting it now."

For more information

David Hik, Z-1007 Biological Sciences Building, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, T6G 2E9, Canada. Tel: +1 780 492 9878; E-mail: dhik [at] ualberta.ca

Konstantin Zgurovsky, WWF-Russia, Nikoloyamskaya st.19 building 3, 109240 Moscow, Russia. Tel: +7 495 727 0939; E-mail: kzgurovsky [at] wwf.ru

Louis Fortier, Department of Biology, VCH 2065-A, Laval University, Quebec City, QC G1K 7P4, Canada. Tel: +1 418 656 5646; E-mail: louis.fortier [at] bio.ulaval.ca


BOX: National claims to the Arctic seabed

In July 2007, the voyage of a Russian icebreaker and two submersibles to plant a Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole attracted global media attention. It was a high-profile way for Russia to assert sovereignty over much of the Arctic Ocean. What portion of the Arctic is eventually judged to be inside national jurisdictions, and what portion is judged to remain on the high seas, will play an important role in eventual management of the region.

Coastal states generally claim a 200-nm limit for their Exclusive Economic Zones, within which they hold jurisdiction over all natural resources. However, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows claims beyond that if the natural prolongation of an adjoining continental shelf extends farther than 200 nm. In 2001, Russia filed a claim with the UN that its continental shelf extended over a majority of the Arctic Ocean - encroaching on areas that Canada, the U.S., and Denmark (Greenland) anticipated claiming for themselves. The latter nations filed protests, and the UN instructed Russia to submit a revised claim with more scientific data to justify its case. Russia's July expedition was part of that revision effort.

It will be up to a UN commission (the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, or CLCS) to judge each nation's eventual claims. That adjudication process is expected to last the next decade or more, as countries still have to submit scientifically complete claims, based in part on the depth and shape of the seabed and the thickness of underlying sediments. The CLCS website is http://www.un.org/Depts/los/clcs_new/clcs_home.htm.


BOX: A new natural state for the Arctic

A melted Arctic Ocean will represent a new natural state for the region beyond its simply becoming ice-free. As it stands, much of the ice-covered Arctic "is barren in terms of fish populations," says Alf Håken Hoel of the University of Tromsø, Norway. He notes that the Arctic coast of Russia presently has no major offshore commercial fisheries. With warming waters, fish species from the north Atlantic and north Pacific would be expected over time to establish populations in the Arctic Ocean, thus opening up new fishing grounds. In this light, proactive management of the Arctic Ocean would involve management of what the Arctic ecosystem is expected to become, not necessarily what it is today.

For the high seas of the Arctic Ocean, Hoel notes an eventual fisheries management regime would need to be based on the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the UN Fish Stocks Agreement. Coastal states in the region (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the U.S.) would retain sovereign rights over resources within their Exclusive Economic Zones.

For more information: Alf Håken Hoel, Department of Political Science, University of Tromsø, 9037 Tromsø, Norway. E-mail: hoel [at] sv.uit.no


BOX: Additional sources of information on Arctic issues

International Arctic Science Committee
http://www.iasc.se

Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (2004)
http://www.acia.uaf.edu

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group Reports (2007) and Fourth Assessment Report (forthcoming: November 2007)
http://www.ipcc.ch

Arctic Calendar of Events (conference list)
http://calendar.arcus.org/upcomingevents.html

WWF Arctic Programme and its quarterly publication Arctic Bulletin
http://www.panda.org/arctic

International Polar Year (IPY)
http://www.ipy.org