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Ecosystem-based management: Solving the Arctic’s management puzzle

14 January 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Sea Change: Managing the Arctic Ocean. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

As the climate crisis intensifies and sea ice retreats, the Arctic marine environment is under increasing pressure. The traditional sector-by-sector management approach may not be enough to help the region cope with the emerging challenges and adverse impacts of multiple stressors. Andrey Todorov contemplates whether Arctic states are ready to put the ecosystem at the centre of management.

Imagine that you need to put a 1,000-piece puzzle together—but several different people have the pieces, and each will only give them to you under a different set of conditions. And when you finally get them, some don’t slide together perfectly, so you need to shave them to make them fit and complete the picture.

This is an apt analogy for what Arctic governance looks like today. The good news is that we have an alternative!

For the last few decades, the Arctic has faced major transformations as a result of climate change, technological change and global economic developments. The Arctic Ocean is becoming more accessible: new shipping lanes are opening for trade and tourism while opportunities for fisheries and the mining industry multiply. With these developments will come oil spills, ship collisions, over-exploitation of living resources and other challenges that may imperil life at sea, the fragile environment and the local population.

In this context, can Arctic states afford to pursue business as usual and stick to traditional patterns of marine management?

Fragmentation adds complexity

Under the current approach, each different type of maritime human activity is managed separately: the International Maritime Organization regulates shipping; regional fishery management organizations (such as the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission) oversee fisheries; coastal states have jurisdiction over the exploitation of seabed natural resources within exclusive economic zones and the continental shelf; and the International Seabed Authority sets out the rules for drilling in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJs). The zonal framework inherent in the contemporary international Law of the Sea adds an extra layer of complexity, setting out different balances between the coastal states’ sovereign rights and jurisdictions and all other countries’ freedoms and rights, depending on the type of maritime area in question.

Such a fragmented approach to marine management is widely considered unequal to the increasing challenges. This recognition is giving rise to a global trend to replace conventional sectoral regulation with a more holistic approach known as ecosystem-based management (EBM). EBM aims to maintain marine ecosystems in a healthy, productive and resilient condition so they can sustain human uses of the ocean and ultimately achieve sustainable development. EBM tools like marine spatial planning (MSP) or marine protected areas (MPAs) can accommodate all stakeholders’ interests in a specific area in a manner that safeguards healthy marine ecosystems.

Yet the implementation of EBM in the Arctic will face major legal and organizational challenges. To overcome them, we will need to ensure that these management measures fully comply with the law, find ways to engage nonregional countries in complying with the EBM policies in ABNJs, and coordinate between different marine industries and decision-making organizations.

Expanding the Arctic Council's powers

The solution to these challenges seems to lie in maximizing and realizing the Arctic Council’s potential. Arctic states should consider making the Council a more authoritative body—one endowed with legal personality and the mandate to adopt binding decisions. Bearing in mind regional organizations’ limited powers to restrict third states’ rights and freedoms, especially in marine ABNJs, the Council could play the central role in co-ordinating EBM tools like MSP or MPAs with global and regional sectoral organizations that are active in the Arctic and able to engage a wide range of non-regional states and stakeholders.

Implementing this ecosystem-based approach will require Arctic states to be proactive rather than reactive. In the meantime, there are already good examples of this in the region: in 2018, the five stakeholders with the largest fishing fleets (China, the European Union, Iceland, Japan and South Korea) joined the five Arctic coastal states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russian and the US) in adopting a legally binding agreement to ban unregulated commercial fisheries in the central part of the Arctic Ocean before any actual fishing activities even began.

The upcoming Russian chairmanship in the Arctic Council from 2021 to 2023 could be the perfect opportunity to promote new approaches to marine management in the Arctic Ocean. As a country whose national identity and economy depend heavily on the Arctic and its resources, it is vital to Russia’s future to figure out how to put together the puzzle of a healthy Arctic marine environment.

ANDREY TODOROV is a researcher with the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences. His research focuses on Arctic governance and the Law of the Sea.