, 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)
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.
Narwhals in Baffin Bay (Photo NOAA/University of Washington)
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.
Bowhead whale in Disko Bay off the Greenland coast, May 2009 (Photo by Uffe Wilken)
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.
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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