Last week I visited the Svalbard archipelago in the northern Barents Sea to bear witness to the rapid changes occurring in the Arctic. In many ways, the Arctic is the frontline of dramatic environmental changes that will impact everyone.
Until recently, the northern Barents Sea, one of Earth’s last pristine environments, had been safely protected with ice cover. However, this is no longer the case. Due to the effects of climate change, sea ice is melting, the area is changing dramatically, and a new ocean is opening up. This enables the oil and fishing industries to expand into the far North.
This far away land and its seas are no longer what they used to be and are surprisingly not protected. Norway, due to its role in deciding what happens in these waters, has a key part to play. If we are to retain what we have left, and make the area more able to be resilient in the face of the changing climate, the Norwegian government must make the waters a marine protected area. Up to now, however it has shown a lack of political will to do so.
Giant fishing trawlers bulldozing the sea
Having spent 20 plus years as a climate campaigner, I didn’t travel to the Arctic with rose-colored glasses. I knew the ice was melting. The Earth’s 2015 surface temperatures were the warmest since modern record keeping began in 1880, according to independent analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NASA reports that spring 2016 was the hottest recorded in the Northern hemisphere.
With the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, the ancient glaciers of Svalbard are retreating. Witnessing the ice melt – with my own eyes in my new role as Executive Director, Greenpeace International – I imagined the day in just a short few decades when the Arctic will have ice-free summers and it petrified me.
Climate change is opening up the northern Barents Sea and the fishing industry is advancing further to the North each year. Which means previously untouched areas are turning into a new hunting ground. Dozens of giant trawlers are already above the 78th parallel, a historic development.
This industry is using bottom trawling as part of their practice. Bottom trawling does not mean just taking cod; it is like clear-cutting forests but underwater. The trawlers carry 100-metres long nets weighing with heavy metal rollers that smash everything in their path. They are like bulldozers of the sea. Fragile seabed communities of sea pens and corals that need decades to grow can be wiped out in seconds. And with the industry, comes trash.
Arctic islands are covered with trash
Probably like most people who don’t live here, I imagined this part of the Arctic as a land of ice and snow with limited traces of human beings. I expected to see more glaciers and more majestic ranges covered in white. Instead our Greenpeace crew, campaign team and the three winners of our poster competition, found trash.
I wasn’t sure how much trash we would find, but at the end of day one we had collected a large mound of trash – buoys, fishing nets, rope, glass, plastic bottles and more. The recurring piece of trash though was shoes – was this a message about our human footprint?
For Svalbard, it is estimated that about 80 percent of the trash washed ashore comes from industrial fishing. In annual Barents Sea fisheries surveys the highest litter counts coincide with areas of intensive fishery and shipping.
These items are not only a blight on the landscape, they are dangerous. Reindeer, polar bears and other animals get entangled in old fishing nets and suffocate. Birds consume toxic particles of plastic. Plastics can carry pollutants that, if ingested, may also accumulate through the food chain.
As part of our ‘Protect What You Love’ campaign, the team decided to organize a beach clean up to raise awareness about the consequences of bottom trawling and the trash left behind by the fishing industry.
According to UNESCO, globally, up to 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from eating plastic or getting entangled in plastic debris.
Urgent need for legal protection
This unequivocal destruction of the underwater ecologies is legal. The current protected areas cover just a small part of unique marine habitats, and the rest is open for destructive oil production and industrial fishing.
For now, some of the world’s largest seafood and fishing companies have committed to not expand their search for cod into large, previously un-fished areas in the northern Barents Sea in the Norwegian Arctic.
The initiative, brokered by Greenpeace, marks the first time an entire industry has collectively called for Arctic protection – in the absence of legal protection in these areas.
The agreement states that any fishing company expanding into the agreed to Arctic waters will not be able to sell their cod to a number of major seafood brands and retailers. But the agreement, though in good faith, is voluntary.
Our environment – whether it is the Arctic or the Amazon – needs protecting. I believe the Arctic waters are crucial for the life of our planet and should be protected.
The Norwegian government needs to act fast to ensure these previously untouched areas of the northern Barents Sea are protected and any expansion of fishing is stopped.
Jennifer Morgan is Executive Director at Greenpeace International.
This story first appeared on The Huffington Post.