With sea ice cover shrinking, the Arctic Ocean has taken centerstage in global discussions related to climate change and economic opportunities. While open waters may bring new opportunities to the region, increasing accessibility to the High North also presents risks for Arctic inhabitants and ecosystems, including through oil spills and shipping accidents.
The Arctic States hold a responsibility to safeguard the future development of the region and to develop models for stewardship of the marine environment. This requires both a better understanding of the drivers and effects altering the Arctic marine environment and enhanced cooperation amongst the Arctic States, local inhabitants, external actors and international legal frameworks.
To protect the Arctic marine environment and counteract possible detrimental effects of climate change and pollution, the Arctic States have recognized the need to work together closely – and they do so on a wide range of marine issues. These include issues related to marine pollution, sustainable shipping practices, search and rescue operations, marine cooperation and risk management.
Over the past years, marine litter has emerged as one of the most pervasive problems affecting the marine environment globally. The Arctic is no exception. The Icelandic Chairmanship (2019-2021) has thus placed plastic pollution in the Arctic marine environment high on its agenda and is drawing on the findings of the first Desktop Study on Marine Litter in the Arctic, which was developed by the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group. PAME is currently developing a Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Arctic as a follow-up to the Desktop Study.
Another pollution risk stems from increased shipping and exploration activities in the Arctic: oil spills. In 2013, Arctic Ministers signed the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (MOSPA). Its objective is to strengthen cooperation, coordination, and mutual assistance on oil pollution preparedness and response in the Arctic in order to protect the marine environment from pollution by oil. The Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group has been tasked to implement the agreement and its operational guidelines.
Safe and sustainable shipping and operations in Arctic waters is another important component of safeguarding the Arctic marine environment – and a prerequisite has been to evaluate current and future use of the Arctic Ocean. One of the outcomes was the 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), which was developed by PAME. Its recommendations, such as the need to enhance Arctic marine safety, protect Arctic people and the environment and building the Arctic marine infrastructure continue to guide activities of the Council. PAME continues to work on projects and initiatives to promote safe and sustainable shipping in the Arctic. Some key ones are the launching of a comprehensive shipping activity database; the development of the Arctic Shipping Best Practice Information Forum in support of effective implementation of the IMO’s Polar Code; and a number of projects on use and carriage of Heavy Fuel Oil in the Arctic and the development of a Regional Reception Facilities Plan, of which outcomes from both have been communicated to the International Maritime Organization.
Key to safe operations in the Arctic Ocean is cooperation amongst the eight Arctic States and other stakeholders. EPPR collaborates with international bodies and fora to identify best practices, exchange information, and develop a repository for lessons learned in Arctic search and rescue exercises and incidents.
One international instrument for cooperation on search and rescue operations in the Arctic that was negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council is the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, which was signed by the Arctic States in 2011.
The Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Strategic Plan 2015-2025 (AMSP) provides a framework to guide its actions to protect Arctic marine and coastal ecosystems and to promote sustainable development. The AMSP articulates how the Arctic Council can increase its understanding of the impacts of human activities, climate change and ocean acidification. The AMSP recognizes the importance of acquiring a better understanding of Arctic change so that actions can be taken that allow Arctic inhabitants, including Arctic indigenous peoples to further adapt to the change. The strategic actions identified in the AMSP guide the work of the Arctic Council and its subsidiary bodies on marine-related activities.
In an effort to enhance strategic and policy guidance, as well as collaboration and coordination of marine activities in the Arctic Council, the Senior Arctic Officials have been assigned a central role. As government representatives from the Arctic States, Senior Arctic Officials are well positioned to engage in holistic discussions on marine issues of which the AMSP plays an important role. Going forward, they will do so jointly with marine experts that bring in both scientific findings and indigenous expertise. The objective of this mechanism is – amongst other tasks – to give strategic guidance to the Council’s Working Groups on marine issues, to provide policy guidance, and to develop a unified marine workplan for the Arctic Council.