A chance for greater protection of the Arctic

by David Santillo

March 2, 2015

Government members from all over Europe are meeting this week for the OSPAR (named after the Oslo and Paris Conventions) Convention’s Biodiversity Committee (BDC) in Cork, Ireland. They have an opportunity to move towards providing urgent protection for the Arctic. OSPAR delegates know well how to take progressive and bold measures for environmental protection.

The OSPAR Convention is the legal instrument for the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic. It is the only regional Convention that can establish a marine protected area (MPA) in part of the international waters of the central Arctic Ocean in accordance with the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea.

In fact, if the proposed Arctic MPA is taken forward, this would not be the first time that OSPAR has used its specific mandate to protect areas covered by this Convention in areas beyond the national jurisdiction. The Charlie-Gibbs Marine Protected Area, and six additional MPAs, established by OSPAR in 2010 and 2012 to protect the unique natural features associated with the Mid-Atlantic Ridge were the first set of conservation areas ever to be established in international waters in the North Atlantic, and the world’s first network of High Seas Marine Protected Area.

The ice-covered waters of the Arctic can be the next. In 2014, WWF provided the scientific rationale for and formally nominated the “Arctic Ice High Seas Area”, the still permanently ice-covered waters of the Central Arctic Basin which lie within the OSPAR maritime area, as an MPA to be designated by the OSPAR Commission. This area has already been acknowledged by the Convention on Biological Diversity to meet the scientific criteria for an Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Area (EBSA). Although only a fraction of the relevant Arctic ice habitat in the OSPAR area, and of the ‘permanent’ sea ice in the Arctic as a whole, protection of this area alone would nonetheless be a significant step forward for OSPAR nations in meeting their obligations to protect the marine environment.

The next step towards the declaration of this protected area is the Biodiversity Committee meeting taking place now in Cork.

Protecting the Arctic and its ecosystems is not just a ‘a nice thing to do’. The ice-covered waters of the high Arctic provide a range of unique habitats linked to its variety of ice conditions, including a range of threatened or endangered species of animals. Sadly, the forecasts of changing ice conditions due to climate change indicate that the total volume of sea ice will continue to drop over decades the to come. While governments need to take the urgent action to tackle climate change itself under other treaties and conventions, they at least have the opportunity, and the responsibility, under the OSPAR Convention, to put in place what measures they can to help protect species and habitats from other pressures, giving them some greater resilience to ongoing global change.

The OSPAR Convention has been a groundbreaking force for change since 1998 when the Commission adopted highly progressive and ambitious strategies to address environmental protection issues, including agreeing the legal ban on disposal at sea of oil and gas platforms.

Now it is once again time to make history. For the sake of the Arctic and the diversity of species it supports, we cannot afford to miss another chance: countries at OSPAR can take the environmental lead again by agreeing on measures for the urgently needed protection of the Arctic.

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