As Arctic sea ice melts, historically ice-covered Arctic waters have become susceptible to new threats of increased industrial fishing, shipping, and oil and gas exploration and development.
Given these threats, there is a real and immediate need for a precautionary European Arctic Policy.
In response to the Communication adopted today by the European Commission: The EU and the Arctic Region, Oceana, the international marine conservation organization, reminds decision makers that any EU policy on the Arctic region should aim to ensure high level environmental protection concerns above and beyond sustainable use.
The Arctic is a fragile and pristine ecosystem, already under serious threat from global warming. Arctic sea ice has been disappearing at an alarming rate in recent years, which is putting extreme stress on Arctic ecosystems that local people and animals rely on. This sea ice loss has also opened the Arctic to the immediate threat of rapid industrialization. As Arctic sea ice melts, historically ice-covered Arctic waters have become susceptible to new threats of increased industrial fishing, shipping, and oil and gas exploration and development. Increasing human activities could significantly accelerate the threats facing the Arctic, which would have cascading effects all over the world.
Given these threats, there is a real and immediate need for a precautionary European Arctic Policy, especially considering that there is currently no international treaty or agreement governing the Arctic ecosystem.
“Irresponsible development in the Arctic ecosystem holds the potential for catastrophe”, warns Xavier Pastor, Executive Director for Oceana in Europe. “Moreover, the Arctic is inhabited by more than four million peoples, including more than 30 indigenous cultures, whose lives would be directly affected by industrialization.”
Industrial fishing along with oil and gas activities and increased shipping in the Arctic are considered significant threats for the ecological sustainability of Arctic ecosystems and therefore the EU should be looking at a precautionary approach as the first policy option.
“As an international community, we need a comprehensive scientific assessment followed by precautionary management for the critical Arctic ecosystem,” said Jim Ayers, Executive Director for Oceana in Alaska. “We have the unique opportunity to protect a place before it is destroyed, to do development right, instead of rushing in to stake claims at any cost. The Arctic is too important to the entire planet to allow that to happen on our watch.”
Oceana is working for such a precautionary approach at the local, national and international levels. Oceana scientists and policy experts have called for a full scientific assessment of Arctic ecosystems, including the possible threats from any new industrial activities. After such an assessment were in place, new industrial activities could be allowed based on the best available science through a precautionary approach that protects the health of Arctic ecosystems and the subsistence way of life for native peoples of the Arctic.
There has been progress in the United States of America for such an approach. In the next few months policy makers in the U.S. will decide on an action to close the entire U.S. Arctic to the expansion of industrial fishing. This goes hand-in-hand with a federal policy establishing that the U.S. should work with other Arctic nations to responsibly manage fishing throughout the Arctic*. Oceana is working to continue that momentum around the world, and establish similar standards and protections from the potential threats from shipping and oil and gas activities.
The EU has already committed at the domestic and international level to protect global biodiversity as well as reduce the impact of international trade on global ecosystems. This standard should also apply to the Arctic region, especially considering the dramatic impacts on the Arctic from climate change, especially the dramatic loss of sea ice seen in recent years.
“It will take coordinated and visionary leadership to protect the future of the Arctic,” said Pastor, “As goes the Arctic, so goes the planet, and we must all work together toward a truly sustainable future for the Arctic and the world.”
* The US Senate passed a resolution this summer asking the State Department to encourage Arctic nations to close northern commercial fisheries
In October 2008, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council expressed its intention to adopt a Fisheries management plan that closes the Arctic Management Area to commercial fisheries.