2 Ways to Protect the Arctic Ocean Right Now

by Mary Sweeters

March 21, 2016

Despite its place as home to many coastal communities, its incredible and unique ecosystems, and the increasing threat it faces from climate change, the Arctic Ocean remains one of the least protected places on Earth.

Despite its place as home to many coastal communities, its incredible and unique ecosystems, and the increasing threat it faces from climate change, the Arctic Ocean remains one of the least protected places on Earth.

Earlier this month, scientists reported that the level of warming in the Arctic was “completely unprecedented” and that Arctic ice is melting much faster than previously thought. That has serious consequences for people and ecosystems in the region, and it makes the responsibility to protect the Arctic’s increasingly open waters even more urgent.

The region is already open to the risk of offshore drilling for oil and gas as well as commercial fishing fleets trawling the ocean, and melting sea ice only creates more opportunities for this type of destruction.

The responsibility to stop this from happening falls to the Arctic Council — an international forum of the eight countries with territory in the Arctic, six Arctic Indigenous councils known as the Permanent Participants, and observer nations, agencies, and NGOs — which met last week in Fairbanks, Alaska. The United States has now served one of its two years as Council chair, and there are some big opportunities to make progress on Arctic protection in the remaining time.

The U.S. team raised the bar with its stated agenda to “put the Arctic Council on steroids,” and the recent joint statement between the U.S. and Canada outlines actions we’d like to see other countries follow. However, Arctic nations need to move more quickly and decisively. Their actions need to reflect the urgent reality that climate change is bringing to the Arctic Ocean.

To that end, we’ve got two recommendations for how the Council can protect Arctic waters before it’s too late.

1) Create a network of protected areas across the Arctic Ocean, including an Arctic Sanctuary in the uninhabited waters around the North Pole.

Floating ice in the Arctic Ocean. As the Arctic sea ice is about to reach its lowest extent of the year, Greenpeace is in the Arctic to demand that world leaders take action on climate change at the upcoming UN climate summit in New York.

Here’s what this Arctic Sanctuary would look like.

First, all extractive industries — that includes all oil and gas drilling and commercial fishing — would be banned in the international waters around the North Pole. This would complement a wider regional network of marine protected areas and marine reserves that span across the Arctic Ocean.

Second, local communities — particularly Indigenous communities and those who practice subsistence lifestyles — should have input on which areas will become marine reserves to ensure that these protections don’t infringe on their cultural traditions or ability to survive via traditional means.

Finally, this network should include areas that have already been recognized as especially ecologically sensitive by international programs such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

2) Start the process for a legally binding international agreement to protect the Arctic Ocean.

Josefina Skerk, from Sweden, in traditional Sami dress at Barneo base in the high Arctic. She is one of the four young ambassadors about to trek to the North Pole. They are carrying with them a time capsule containing 2.7 million names of supporters who wish to protect the Arctic. They plan to lower the capsule and a ‘flag for the future’ to the seabed beneath the North Pole.

Only a strong, legally binding agreement for the Arctic Ocean can lead to the meaningful, cooperative action that the Arctic Ocean urgently needs. In addition to the network of protected areas outlined above, any agreement should also prevent destructive industrial fishing in previously unfished areas of the Arctic and prohibit oil drilling in Arctic waters.

Again, Arctic nations should develop a roadmap toward this type of agreement  together with Indigenous organizations representing the peoples of the Arctic and with a specific and ambitious timeline.

A new Arctic agreement should also include the following key elements:

  • Recognition of Indigenous rights for Arctic peoples.
  • Modern principles of ocean governance including the precautionary principle, the ecosystem approach, and use of best available science and Indigenous/traditional knowledge.
  • Transparency, accountability and full public participation of local communities and civil society.
  • A strong monitoring, control and compliance system.
  • The process should be open to the participation of non-Arctic nation states to ensure wide ownership and implementation.
  • A strong institutional structure including a secretariat, a scientific committee and a technical and compliance committee.

Arctic Council: Move Faster to Protect the Arctic

The Arctic Council has seen some progress toward Arctic marine protection, but there is the potential for much more, and the region can’t wait. As the Arctic Ocean continues to heat up and transform due to climate change — affecting not only its residents but also the rest of the planet —  the need for urgent action to protect the Arctic has never been more clear.

The Arctic Council was founded 20 years ago to coordinate efforts toward sustainable development and environmental protection. It is in a powerful and critical position and must move forward at the pace and with the decisiveness needed to take action for the region. We don’t have any time to waste.

Mary Sweeters

By Mary Sweeters

Mary Sweeters is a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace USA. She works to fight the undue influence of the oil industry in solidarity with communities affected by oil extraction, pollution, and climate change, and to advocate for a just transition to a clean energy economy. She is from Sonoma, California.

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