A Green and Just Recovery
© Adam Rheborg
COVID-19 disrupts Arctic beach clean-ups

For nearly two decades, with support from the governor of Svalbard, passengers on Arctic expedition cruises have been helping with clean-up efforts in the Arctic—and the industry as a whole has been working to enhance these efforts since 2018. But with almost no expedition cruises operating during the coronavirus pandemic, this will be the first year that tourists cannot help retrieve litter from Arctic beaches. As Melissa Nacke writes, not only has the pandemic hindered clean-up efforts—it is creating new sources of pollution, such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer bottles. And this growing trash problem will be compounded by the return of single-use items that the expedition cruise industry has worked hard to eliminate.

For many visitors, a trip to the Arctic becomes a chance to reflect on some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time. When tourists set foot on Svalbard’s remote beaches, their expectations of pristine and untouched nature are sometimes shattered by the sight of marine litter piled up on the shorelines.

Transported by ocean currents, waste from other parts of the world can end up in the Arctic. Land- and sea-based activities, particularly commercial fishing, are regional sources of litter. Using equipment provided by the governor of Svalbard, cruise passengers often pick up the litter, bringing it on board for transport to Longyearbyen, where it is handled at a waste reception facility. Scientists there also analyse the trash at the end of the season to learn more about what types of waste are showing up and where it is coming from. This information helps decision-makers develop action plans for tackling marine litter.

Marine litter puts Arctic wildlife at risk. In Svalbard, nine out of 10 fulmars (tube-nosed seabirds) have plastic in their stomachs, and polar bears have been observed ingesting garbage. Reindeer have caught their antlers in ropes and fishing nets that drift ashore—mishaps that have proved fatal in many cases.

© Zet Freiburghaus

Image: On a beach in Svalbard, Norway, a polar bear sniffs at fishing nets that have washed ashore.

Most expedition cruise vessels in the Arctic are members of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), an organization that is dedicated to managing safe, responsible, environmentally friendly tourism in the Arctic. In 2018, AECO launched its Clean Seas project to step up efforts to combat marine litter by working with expedition cruise operators on solutions to cut back on single-use items, enhancing clean-up efforts and educating visitors about marine litter. However, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into these efforts and disrupted the industry’s plans.

Image: Passengers from an expedition cruise vessel help remove a fishing net stuck in the sand on a beach in Svalbard, Norway in 2018.

For years, expedition cruise operators belonging to AECO have been rethinking their facilities and adapting their products to reduce waste—for example, installing water and soap dispensers, removing single-use items and requiring more eco-friendly product packaging. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, operators have been trying to figure out if and how operations can resume under new guidelines and regulations. For example, refillable water bottle stations and shared salt and pepper shakers on dining tables are now being questioned for their ability to spread the virus, and operators fear they will have to revoke some of their efforts.

© Chelsea Claus

Unfortunately, this virus may be with us for some time. We must think beyond short-term solutions and continue to work toward sustainable and environmentally friendly tourism, even in this pandemic, without losing the positive momentum of responsible tourism that was created.

Historically, clean-up efforts by tourists and locals in Svalbard were hugely successful: more than 40,000 kilograms of marine litter have been removed to date.

This success is largely due to the collaboration with the governor of Svalbard, highlighting the importance of establishing partnerships with local entities and ensuring that tourism benefits both operators and destinations.

In a post-COVID world, a “green recovery” for the Arctic needs to benefit the people who live there. This past season, along with losing tourists’ clean-up efforts, local Arctic communities have also foregone the revenue normally generated by expedition cruise operations. To ensure the safety of communities, alternative solutions for local engagement and benefits are being explored for when cruises resume. Early ideas include having vessels make “nature only” landings away from communities, bringing local crafts on board vessels for sale to avoid contact between tourists and locals, or having local artists set up art installations outside of communities for when tourists arrive. But given the ongoing uncertainties and frequent government rule changes, all these proposals are only suggestions for now, not plans.

Before the pandemic, AECO was looking to expand clean-up efforts in other Arctic areas and partnering with local stakeholders in Iceland. When expedition cruise operations can resume, we’re looking forward to seeing Icelandic locals and expedition cruise passengers work together to combat marine plastic pollution and reduce the overall environmental footprint while creating a space where mutual cultural understanding and respect are enhanced.

During this time of uncertainty, we must ensure that environmental progress is not lost, and continue to find innovative solutions to further reduce our impact. COVID-19 will not derail AECO’s work towards sustainable, responsible and safe Arctic cruise tourism.

MELISSA NACKE is an environmental specialist in Tromsø, Norway who works with the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators.