Sea Change: Managing the Arctic Ocean
© Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

Introducing ArcNet: An innovative, proactive approach to Arctic marine conservation

The Arctic Ocean plays a key role in moderating our global climate and provides cultural identity, food security and income for many of the region’s 4 million residents. Its unique flora and fauna support ecosystem stability and balance. The climate crisis threatens this valuable marine environment—but WWF has created an innovative way to ensure it remains resilient and full of life.

Arctic waters—and the ecosystems and cultures they support—are at risk as the climate warms, permitting increased human and industrial activities in the area, such as tourism and resource exploitation. Although Arctic nations have begun to establish marine protected areas, their isolation doesn’t account for the dynamic and interconnected nature of ocean life. That’s why, in 2017, WWF initiated ArcNet—short for Arctic Ocean Network of Priority Areas for Conservation (PACs).

ArcNet is the world’s first effort to carry out marine conservation planning at the scale of an entire ocean. Designed to be adaptive, inclusive and transparent, ArcNet offers a basis for establishing conservation measures that work for biodiversity and people and includes important implementation and management tools.

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It has two main goals. One is to identify an ecologically representative, wellconnected network of PACs that will work together to support the resilience and long-term conservation of biological diversity and ecological processes across the entire Arctic marine environment. The other is to ensure that the results of this analysis help define, implement and manage a conservation network in the Arctic Ocean.

The idea and methodology for ArcNet came from WWF–Russia, which also led the Arctic-level scientific analysis for the project. Irina Onufrenya, acting director of WWF–Russia’s biodiversity programme, says ArcNet’s power lies in providing a bigger picture across the entire Arctic while also showing how conservation work in Russia can contribute to biodiversity protection across the whole region.

"We always knew that whales, seabirds and fish live in a world without political borders or national seas,” she says. “All we needed was an understanding of the full picture—and now we have it. We can see exactly which areas beyond the Russian waters need conservation measures to ensure that ‘our’ wildlife is preserved.”

Martin Sommerkorn, head of conservation for the WWF Arctic Programme, spent years helping bring ArcNet to life and says he’s proud of what the team has achieved.

It’s the first of its kind—an oceanwide analysis identifying a network of priority places for conservation. And as we start to socialize ArcNet, we’re noticing that people can relate to it and are considering contributing to ArcNet and biodiversity conservation. This gives us hope that we have been getting it right.

To come up with the proposed network, WWF used a systematic, comprehensive and rigorous conservation analysis that engaged experts and relied on the best available scientific data. More than 800 Arctic marine environment features were considered to produce the resulting analysis and maps, with examples of typical habitats within regions (representative features) and geophysical and/or biological anomalies that are important for biodiversity (distinctive features).

© Wild Wonders of Europe / Ole Joergen Liodden / WWF

Recognizing an interconnected Arctic Ocean

ArcNet aims to address the interconnectedness of the marine environment by including seasonal habitats, food-cycle interactions, freshwater-marine linked habitats, features that promote movement through restricted passages for free swimmers, linkages beyond the Arctic and more. It also seeks to identify a PAC network that would underpin future conservation planning efforts at national and local levels. In doing so, ArcNet will ensure that conservation planning in the Arctic at finer-scale analyses doesn’t sacrifice the big-picture perspective.

To grasp how ArcNet can help establish conservation regimes at finer scales, consider the example of WWF Russia’s recent conservation efforts in the Pechora Sea, an area in the southeast of the Barents Sea.

The Arctic Ocean scale: ArcNet priority areas for conservation in the Pechora Sea.

To grasp how ArcNet can help establish conservation regimes at finer scales, consider the example of WWF Russia’s recent conservation efforts in the Pechora Sea, an area in the southeast of the Barents Sea.

©WWF Russia
ArcNet highlighted the entire Pechora Sea as a priority area at the global Arctic scale. But finer-scale analyses singled out a number of smaller areas to prioritize: three in the national (Russian Arctic) study and 12 in the regional study. The PACs from these three analyses and those from ArcNet are compared in the maps on these pages.

The national scale: Russian Arctic priority areas for conservation in the Pechora Sea.

ArcNet highlighted the entire Pechora Sea as a priority area at the global Arctic scale. But finer-scale analyses singled out a number of smaller areas to prioritize: three in the national (Russian Arctic) study and 12 in the regional study. The PACs from these three analyses and those from ArcNet are compared in the maps on these pages.

©WWF Russia
The whole-ocean and national analyses included only species considered important at the global and national scales, respectively. And while ArcNet used the global IUCN Red List (of endangered species) to assess conservation statuses and set priorities, the national and regional analyses incorporated national and regional endangered statuses.

The regional scale: Pechora Sea priority areas for conservation.

The whole-ocean and national analyses included only species considered important at the global and national scales, respectively. And while ArcNet used the global IUCN Red List (of endangered species) to assess conservation statuses and set priorities, the national and regional analyses incorporated national and regional endangered statuses.

©WWF Russia

These comparisons illustrate ArcNet’s role in finer-scale conservation planning: it provides information about identified areas across a whole ocean while linking and lending weight to those identified at finer scales.

Sommerkorn says ArcNet has the potential to be the biodiversity conservation backbone and insurance mechanism of marine management if people, governments, scientists and industry can work together to establish it.

Its conceptualization is a gamechanger: it is conceived in a wholeocean, ecosystem-based and systematic design and covers all aspects of Arctic marine biodiversity at expert-advised proportions,” he says. “It is designed to evolve as conditions change and to provide for continuing inclusive conservation. It offers processes to engage in and co-design mechanisms that reflect the broad diversity of values people have for biodiversity.

The Arctic Ocean is still a relatively pristine ecosystem. By helping to build national networks of marine protected areas and guiding existing and proposed networks, ArcNet can help keep it that way. Taking a precautionary approach to conservation now rather than a remedial approach later will help us preserve the Arctic Ocean’s biodiversity and support its resilience as pressures mount, securing its life-supporting gifts for current and future generations.

WWF is seeking members of the international community who may be interested in in helping to establish ArcNet as a global conservation success. For more information, visit the WWF ArcNet web page.