The Arctic Ocean in Peril

By Dr. Iris Menn
Greenpeace, Germany

The Arctic Ocean is under pressure. Once a de facto marine reserve protected by permanent sea ice, the Arctic Ocean is currently becoming accessible to industry as a result of manmade climate change causing large swathes of the year-round sea ice to melt. Arctic and sub-Arctic waters are among the most biologically productive in the world. At present, industrial activities in the Arctic Ocean are limited by the sea ice that exists for most or all of the year.

Climate change is changing all this, with both the melting of the sea ice and changes in ocean currents which causes changes in sea temperatures, leading to fish stocks changing their distribution. It is predicted that the North East Atlantic cod stock, the last of the big global cod stocks, will move North and East due to ocean changes. Unsurprisingly with the opening up of these previously unexploited waters, the Barents whitefish fleet is already venturing further north than it ever has before. Cod trawlers such as these drag their heavy gear across the seabed causing extensive damage to vulnerable marine habitats such as cold water corals and sponge fields. The marine habitats north of Svalbard are not well understood and poorly mapped and so it is not known what impact such fishing will have on the fragile and interlinked ecosystems of the Arctic Ocean.

Ironically it is not only the fishing industry that has its eye on the Arctic Ocean. The fossil fuel industry is also gearing up to exploit the resources that are beginning to be accessible as a result of the disappearing ice. So far, the melting sea ice has driven a rush of seabed studies, each aimed at showing the continuation of the continental shelf to the North Pole, and thus sovereignty over those parts of the Arctic. The ‘race’ to exploit the oil and gas believed to be under the Arctic ice also threatens global security.

Unlike Antarctica, there is no single overarching treaty governing activities in the Arctic. With only a patchwork of different rules and regulations in place, most of which are not legally binding, the Arctic Ocean and its marine life, like most other high seas areas, are currently wide open to exploitation, bad practice and illegality. Set up in 1996, the Arctic Council – a high-level intergovernmental forum comprised of the eight Arctic nations and six Indigenous Peoples’ organisations – plays an important role in deciding our Arctic future. However, it remains to be seen if the Arctic Council will be the protector of the Arctic or its exploiter.

Given the issues of global significance affecting the Arctic and the many significant gaps in the existing legislation, there is a clear need for an overarching Arctic multi-lateral agreement or treaty in which the Arctic Council could play a leading role. Such a future agreement would need to ensure the highest levels of protection for the Arctic and in particular for the areas of the Arctic Ocean that have traditionally been protected under the ice. While such a transparent, participatory and equitable agreement is being negotiated, nations and stakeholders must ‘freeze the footprint’ of growing industrial activities in the Arctic. This could be achieved by establishing a moratorium on industrial activity in the area historically covered by sea ice.
Willem Barentsz Poolinstituut

Bundeling van kennis, onderzoek en onderwijs over de Noord- en de Zuidpool






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