© Tim Stewart / WWF-Canada

Open Letter on the SAO Marine Mechanism to the Arctic Council

16 November 2020

Pan-Arctic Communities Ocean

For the last several weeks, Senior Arctic Officials to the Arctic Council have been participating in a series of virtual meetings to discuss the stewardship of the Arctic's marine environment. WWF’s Arctic Programme, as one of the observers of the Arctic Council, took an active role in the meetings and provided a keynote presentation. To continue to support more effective stewardship of the Arctic Ocean, the Arctic Programme provided an open letter to the chair of the Senior Arctic Officials with our assessment of the discussions and our recommendations on the next steps that should be taken by Arctic states. The text of that letter is below:

Einar Gunnarsson
Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials and Ambassador Arctic Affairs
Sent via email, November 13, 2020

Dear Einar:

On behalf of WWF’s Arctic Programme, I congratulate the Icelandic Chairmanship on arranging the first-ever SAO Marine Mechanism webinar series. These webinars were an important priority of Iceland’s Chairmanship and in many ways a success. By the same token, I wish to express our concerns about the Mechanism’s substantive focus and continuity.

In light of the nine functional needs identified by the Task Force on Arctic Marine Cooperation (TFAMC) to strengthen the Arctic Council’s work on marine issues, the SAO Marine Mechanism has the mandate and responsibility to take urgent action to address serious challenges confronting the Arctic Ocean. WWF calls on the Arctic Council to move forward on the implementation of those recommendations.

At the outset of the SAO Marine Mechanism meetings, WWF posed the following questions regarding the focus of the Mechanism:

How does the SAO Marine Mechanism (SMM) advance establishing ecosystem-based management, including Networks of Marine Protected Areas as a key tool for sustainable development, resilience and adaptation?

It is our view, that the SAO Marine Mechanism has the opportunity to improve and advance the stewardship of the Arctic Ocean through implementation of ecosystem-based management in the Central Arctic Ocean, including establishment of a network of Marine Protected Areas as a key tool for sustainable development, resilience and adaptation.

It is not enough for nations to act individually on marine protection. To be truly effective, there must be broader cooperative plans. There is a need, and an opportunity, for the SAO Marine Mechanism to put in motion an inclusive (High Seas) process with an appropriate and broad set of actors, including the Arctic Council Members, Permanent Participants, Observer States and Observer Organizations. Such a process will institutionalize the strategic planning and implementation of ecosystem-based management, thereby enhancing stewardship of the Arctic Ocean. We strongly encourage the Arctic Council to set up such a process instead of conducting a mere pilot project, as indicated in the conclusions of the SAO Marine Mechanism.

How can the SAO Marine Mechanism support efforts by other bodies to strengthen governance of the Arctic Ocean, such as regional implementation of the BBNJ and the Arctic Fisheries Agreement?

We strongly suggest that the SAO Marine Mechanism enable collaboration among Arctic States in the formulation and implementation of global agreements. Arctic States would benefit from a strong, united voice if they cooperate in their engagement in the on-going negotiations under the auspices of the UN General Assembly’s Implementing Agreement on Marine Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ). The Arctic Council should be an active and ambitious leader of the BBNJ process, either through the Council’s Chairmanship with a corresponding mandate or through coordination among Arctic Council Member States’ delegations. This is an opportunity for the Council to tackle Arctic-specific needs in shaping the final global agreement and prepare ground for its timely and fit-for-purpose regional implementation.

It is our view that in addition to considering the potential role of the Arctic Council in implementing the forthcoming BBNJ Agreement in the Arctic, the SAO Marine Mechanism must determine how to interact with existing regional frameworks, such the Arctic Fisheries Agreement and OSPAR. Cooperation in interactions with international mechanisms active in the Arctic region will ensure a well-integrated Arctic marine governance system and reinforce the Arctic Council’s central role in the region.

How can the SAO Marine Mechanism promote compressed timelines for carbon neutrality to minimize the profound effects of climate change on Arctic communities and biodiversity?

Member States of the Arctic Council must be leaders in the global climate crisis by committing to compressed timelines for carbon neutrality.

The SAO Marine Mechanism can lead the way by actively working on urgent climate-related marine issues, such as setting adequate goals in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. It is imperative that conclusions of the SAO Marine Mechanism address the impacts of climate change on the Arctic Ocean, including its dramatic effect on biodiversity, habitats, wildlife and the services Arctic ecosystems provide for people globally. Currently, this critical issue is not being addressed directly by the Arctic Council.

What actions and decisions are needed to enable the SAO Marine Mechanism to deliver at the end of the Icelandic Chairmanship and from the Russian Chairmanship to continue the substantive focus?

The need to assure continuity of the SAO Marine Mechanism for successive chairmanship programs was repeatedly underlined in discussions during the webinar series. WWF calls for clear actions and decisions by the Arctic Council to ensure continuity of the SAO Marine Mechanism towards the forthcoming Russian Chairmanship and beyond.

The SAO Marine Mechanism needs a robust mandate and focused long-term objectives. If governments do not take affirmative implementing action on the TFAMC recommendations, this mechanism will be seen as a failure and with it, chances of protecting the Arctic Ocean and its services.

WWF stands ready to support the Arctic Council in building a SAO Mechanism that is action-oriented and effective. We hope our reflections are taken into consideration when the SAO Marine Mechanism brings its conclusions to the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting.


Dr. Peter Winsor
Director, WWF Global Arctic Programme