Iceberg in water

As the ice melts in the Arctic, concerns grow over its exploitation

What’s happening? As the Arctic’s drifting sea ice steadily diminishes, the area becomes more vulnerable to fishing, shipping, mining, and pollution. Initiatives aimed at safeguarding the delicate ecosystem of the Arctic Ocean involve the establishment of a marine protected area (MPA) in the central Arctic Ocean. The vanishing ice jeopardises both the ecosystems above and below the water surface, permitting vessels to exploit untouched fish stocks and seabed resources due to the absence of a natural barrier. While a collection of treaties provides some protection, international collaboration is of utmost importance. There is an ongoing debate regarding whether to create an MPA encompassing the entire Arctic Ocean or to concentrate on specific regions within national borders. (The Guardian)  

Why does this matter? The Arctic Ocean harbours a vast array of biodiversity and valuable resources. With minimal human interference, over 21,000 identified species have adapted to thrive in the challenging and inhospitable Arctic environment. Nevertheless, as the ice steadily retreats at a rate of 12% per decade, concerns are mounting about a potential “unprecedented free-for-all” in the open waters. 

Regulation – The governance of the Arctic Ocean presents a intricate blend of regulatory frameworks. Among these is a 16-year moratorium on commercial fishing, which was established in 2018 through negotiations involving nine nations and the EU. The wording of this ban suggests a potential future allowance for commercial fishing, with a 16-year timeframe dedicated to research aimed at shaping a well-informed management strategy. More recently, the introduction of the UN High Seas Treaty represents a significant milestone as the first binding legal agreement governing international waters. Nevertheless, this treaty comes with notable shortcomings, such as allowing countries to veto MPAs while simultaneously engaging in fishing or drilling activities without facing penalties. Additionally, there is a forthcoming partial ban on ships transporting heavy fuel oil, scheduled to take effect in 2024, or 2029 for five Arctic nations, with the goal of preventing oil spills in the region. 

Deep-sea mining – This presents an additional issue for the Arctic, a region rich in polymetallic nodules. Norway’s aspirations to establish a mining zone equivalent in size to Germany, with a focus on nodules located at a depth of 4,000 meters, have given rise to concerns. The deep-sea ecosystem is both diverse and largely uncharted, and the consequences of mining remain uncertain. A study conducted by Flora and Fauna asserts that deep-seabed mining could result in “irreversible and extensive” damage. Recently, in response to significant political and scientific scrutiny, the International Seabed Authority has chosen to delay the release of regulations for deep-sea mining until 2024. 

MPAs – In response to the complex regulatory environment, the 90 North Foundation is putting forward a proposal for the creation of a comprehensive Marine Protected Area (MPA) covering the entire Arctic Ocean. This MPA would impose a ban on all human activities, including shipping, mining, fishing, and drilling. Scientific research provides strong support for the establishment of MPAs. A study published in ICES reveals that fully protected MPAs have the capacity to increase biomass by up to 670%. Furthermore, a separate study conducted by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center found that MPAs contribute positively to the welfare and prosperity of nearby communities. 

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