New Hope for the Arctic?

by John Hocevar

April 25, 2013

For millennia Point Hope has been an advantageous promontory for the Inupiat subsistence bowhead whale hunters, who catch the whale as it migrates along Alaska's northern coast. Ancient tools, harpoons made of ivory and spiritual masks have all been discovered on the peninsula. Archaeological excavations have shown people have lived on the point for over 2,000 years, making Point Hope one of the oldest continually inhabited sites in North America.

© Rose Sjölander / 70°

Often as an environmental campaigner, I find myself thinking the planet would be in much better shape if more thought was given, and caution taken, before industries are given free rein to exploit its precious natural resources. Not to mention the time, energy and money that would be saved in mopping up the mess of a particular environmental problem. As the age old saying goes, prevention is better than cure.

This same logic applies to the Arctic surely it is better to stop oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean now before there is a catastrophic spill. Experience tells us that inevitably there will be a spill, which will be impossible to clean up in such harsh conditions. Similarly, it is far better to draw a line now and stop the northwards charge of large-scale industrial fishing vessels that are taking advantage of the melting sea ice than to do nothing and find out in a few years time that the fish are all gone and that fragile marine habitats have been destroyed.

It is therefore encouraging to report that the US Government is behind a forward-thinking initiative to agree with other Arctic coastal states a moratorium on commercial fishing in the international waters of the central Arctic Ocean around the North Pole. This area of high seas in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, as with the vast majority of the high seas, lacks any form of protection. The plan would prevent fishing fleets from steaming into these newly accessible waters, and give time for scientists to study fish populations and better understand the marine environment BEFORE the damage has been done.

This initiative follows a similar domestic decision in 2009 by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to establish a moratorium on commercial fishing in a vast zone off Alaska’s northern coast within the US controlled waters. This time-out will help give the marine life in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas a chance of surviving the sea ice loss and the increasing ocean acidification that are coming to Arctic waters.

Hopefully, the other Arctic coastal states (Russia, Norway, Canada and Denmark) will agree to this plan when they come together for talks scheduled to begin in Washington on April 29th. This moratorium would mark an important step towards protecting the Arctic. It should stay in place until effective rules and regulations systems are in place regionally to protect this fragile area, including the creation of a global sanctuary in the high seas of the North Pole.

However, no level of fisheries protection in the world is going to save the vulnerable marine life of the Arctic from filthy oil spills and dangerous climate change. If the US is serious about protecting the Arctic they need to look at the big picture and expand their forward-thinking on fisheries protection to supporting the creation of a network of marine reserves and a ban on oil drilling in the region.

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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