The 13 Most Vulnerable Arctic Treasures

The 13 Most Vulnerable Arctic Treasures

WASHINGTON, DC, May 18, 2011 (ENS) – At the top of the world, industrial activities are closing in on the last refuges of rare marine mammals and seabirds. As the Arctic warms, shipping and fishing as well as oil and gas exploration are expanding into ocean places that once were inaccessible, frozen under year-round ice.

In a new report by scientists and indigenous peoples, 13 unique and fragile areas in the Arctic Ocean are identified for protection against these emerging threats as well as the continual stressors of climate change, loss of sea ice and ocean acidification.

Ship and tug traverse the waters of the Russian island Novaya Zemlya, one of the 13 places in need of protection, September 2010. (Photo by Mick Evans)

“There is increasing interest in expanded economic activities in the Arctic,” said co-author Thomas Laughlin, deputy head of the Global Marine and Polar Program of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

“The information and maps we have available now will allow governments and the international community to make the right choices regarding the conservation and use of the natural resources of the Arctic,” he said.

The Bering Strait, the Chukchi Beaufort Coast, the Barents Sea coast and the Great Siberian Polynya are among the most vulnerable places. Polynyas are areas of open water surrounded by sea ice.

The 13 areas in need of protection were identified by 34 scientists and representatives of indigenous communities in Arctic countries who gathered at a Scripps Institution of Oceanography workshop last November.

They represent the top priorities out of a total 77 Arctic areas that the workshop participants say should be considered for protection.

The priority areas were selected using internationally accepted criteria for Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas developed under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The criteria are: uniqueness, life history importance, importance to endangered and threatened species; vulnerable, fragile and slow recovery areas; areas of high productivity; areas of high diversity; and naturalness. Importance of an area for subsistence or cultural heritage was also considered.

“The Arctic Ocean is the last untouched frontier,” says Lisa Speer, director of the International Oceans Program at NRDC, and a co-author of the workshop report. “We have a short window of opportunity to plan for industrial development in a way that respects and protects important and fragile ocean places, wildlife and communities.”

The 13 top priority areas featured in the report are:

    Seal meat dries in the Arctic wind, Gamble, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska (Photo by William Sidmore)
  1. St. Lawrence Island, United States: The polynyas, or areas of open water surrounded by sea ice, south of St. Lawrence Island, west of mainland Alaska in the Bering Sea, support nearly the total world population of Spectacled eiders for six months of each year. The polynyas provide key habitat for alcids, kittiwakes, shearwaters, overwintering Pacific walrus, bowhead whales, ice seals and polar bears, and are an important indigenous peoples’ subsistence hunting area.
  2. The Bering Strait, United States and Russia: This area exhibits the highest levels of productivity and diversity in the Arctic. This narrow strait is the only connection between the Pacific and Arctic Oceans, making it a hotspot of global significance. It is a key breeding, pupping, feeding, and/or migratory habitat for many species of whales, seals and walrus, all of which pass through the Bering Strait twice a year when migrating between the Bering and Chukchi Seas.
  3. Chukchi Beaufort Coast of the United States: The lead system at the transition between landfast and drifting ice was described by workshop participants as “a wonder of nature,” providing a spring migratory pathway for hundreds of bowhead whales daily, as well as beluga whales, polar bears, Pacific walrus and gray whales during summer and autumn. About 20,000 gray whales of the migratory eastern population have important deepwater feeding grounds in coastal areas in the eastern Chukchi Sea.

    This region also has an ancient human history and enduring cultural heritage to coastal residents. The annual bowhead whale hunt in villages in the region is a subsistence activity of large sociocultural significance.

  4. Wrangel Island, Russia: The polynyas, leads and coastal waters around Wrangel Island provide important spring and summer feeding habitat for polar bears, migratory and feeding habitat for Pacific walrus, and breeding and feeding for extensive seabird colonies.
  5. Beaufort Coast and Cape Bathurst, Canada: This is a highly productive area, including a large, recurring polynya and lead system. It is vital spring and summer foraging habitat for more than 90 percent Western Arctic bowhead whale population. More than 40,000 beluga whales use this area for foraging and calving in spring and summer. Seabirds of many species congregate here, and it encompasses the only thick-billed murre colony along the Arctic Ocean coast of North America.
  6. Polar Pack Refugium, Canada: The extent of the multi-year ice not a static geographic area but is variable, providing critical habitat for many Arctic creatures. Future projections suggest that the multi-year polar pack ice will continue to rapidly disappear and be replaced by younger and more seasonal ice. The longest remaining portions will be along the northwestern Canadian Archipelago. The remnant pack ice will likely be the only refuge for many ice-dependent animals such as ringed seals and polar bears.
  7. Narwhals in Baffin Bay (Photo NOAA/University of Washington)
  8. Lancaster Sound/North Water Polynya: The recurring North Water polynya is one of the largest and most productive in the Northern Hemisphere. This open water provides vital spring and summer feeding areas for several whale species and many marine birds. There are year-round concentrations of walrus and about 4,000 polar bears in several populations.

    The area provides critical wintering and migratory habitat for the Baffin Bay beluga population and summering areas for a portion of the North Baffin narwhal population, some 80,000 individuals. In spring, it may support most of the world’s narwhal population.

  9. Disko Bay/Store Hellefiskebanke, off Canada and Greenland: The area serves as a key wintering area for species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species, including bowhead and beluga whales and narwhal. Bearded seals are on the ice at Store Hellefiskebanke and walrus and seals appear in winter, making the area an important hunting area.
  10. White Sea/Barents Sea Coast, Russia: These highly productive coastal waters enjoy a coastal branch of warm current originating from the North-Atlantic current. It supports local populations of White Sea beluga whales and provides pupping and molting areas for the entire East Ice harp seal population, and supports Atlantic salmon as well as seabird colonies.
  11. Pechora Sea/Kara Gate, Russia: Here a high diversity and abundance of white fishes, a large breeding stock of Atlantic salmon, as well as Arctic char, navaga, and local relict races of Pacific herring are found, and is an important spawning ground for polar cod. The region contains important areas for wildfowl, both locally breeding and migrating from western and central Siberia. It supports migrating beluga whales and Atlantic walrus.
  12. Novaya Zemlya, Russia: The western waters around Novaya Zemlya constitute a highly productive marine area that supports the largest seabird colonies in the Northeast Atlantic. Surrounded by the Barents Sea, the Arctic Ocean and the Kara Sea, Novaya Zemlya was used as a nuclear test site from 1954 to 1990. It hosted 224 nuclear detonations during that period.
  13. Bowhead whale in Disko Bay off the Greenland coast, May 2009 (Photo by Uffe Wilken)
  14. High Arctic Islands and Shelf, the northern-most archipelago in the Russian and Norwegian Arctic: This is a key area for the endangered Spitsbergen population of bowhead whale, the northern stock of the East-Atlantic meta-population of Atlantic walrus, and most of the world’s breeding population of the threatened ivory gull.

    The waters around Franz Josef Land support diverse seabird species, walrus, and bowhead whales, and productive deepwater communities.

    The marine area around Northeast Svalbard is a highly productive area for fishes, seabirds, marine mammals and zooplankton, and is an important summer feeding area for blue, beluga and humpback whales as well as narwhal.

  15. Great Siberian Polynya, off Norway and Russia: One of the most stable and ecologically important polynyas, it influences ice production in the Arctic Ocean and affects thermo-haline circulation in much of the Laptev and East-Siberian Seas. Annual development of the Great Siberian polynya influences spawning and growth rates of polar cod, the key prey species of the High Arctic ecosystem.

    The Great Siberian polynya supports large seabird colonies, serves as a spring migration route for marine birds, and allows all-year-round maintenance of the local Laptev population of walrus, considered by some to be a separate Laptev race. Ice seals and polar bears inhabit this region, which also has highly diverse and productive benthos communities.

These 13 areas were identified by scientists and legal experts convened in two workshops by the IUCN and NRDC as part of their project to implement ecosystem-based management in the Arctic marine environment.

A mother and baby beluga whale in the waters off Somerset Island, Canada, 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle (Photo by Arctic Watch)

“As nations around the Arctic plan new offshore oil development, fishing and shipping,” said Speer, “this report jumpstarts the process of identifying areas that should be considered for protection from the environmental consequences of those activities, including oil spills, pollution, and habitat degradation.”

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, together with other international agreements and national laws and regulations, provides a general legal foundation.

Still, workshop participants agreed, new rules may be necessary to protect the Arctic marine environment.

Possible areas of international cooperation include: development of new standards for Arctic marine shipping, regulation of new or expanding Arctic fisheries, rules to protect the environment in the course of natural resource development, stricter regulation of Arctic tourism, mechanisms to assess and manage the cumulative impacts of multiple activities affecting the same ecosystems, and procedures for the establishment of representative networks of protected marine areas.

Click here for the report from the second workshop, which identified the 13 significant areas in need of protection. It was held at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California in November 2010.

Partners in the overall project include the Ecologic Institute and the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. The project was made possible by the support of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, and for IUCN only, the Shell Oil Company.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.

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