© Elisabeth Kruger / WWF-US

The future of the Arctic Ocean depends on stewardship

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.

The Arctic Ocean is home to diverse marine species and unique ecosystems, and its cryosphere plays a significant role in moderating the Earth’s climate. The Arctic marine environment also provides cultural identity, food security and a source of income for many of the region’s inhabitants.

But climate change is transforming the Arctic Ocean at an increasingly rapid rate. Record-high air temperatures and melting sea ice are two important indicators of many dramatic, ongoing changes. Along with these come opportunities for industrial development, which is exposing marine life in this vulnerable environment to increased risks.

The question that naturally arises is: how can we best safeguard and manage the Arctic marine environment now and in the future? This question is especially difficult to answer given that the Arctic’s integrated, complex ecosystem—characterized by interactions between nature and humans—is undergoing rapid change throughout its entire structure.

But one way to address this question is to be “future smart.” The latest global climate models can tell us what the Arctic’s atmosphere-ocean system might look like in the future. Equipped with this knowledge, we have a chance to improve and advance the stewardship of the Arctic Ocean by implementing ecosystem-based management. This could include locating future refugia and establishing a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) to ensure sustainable development, resilience and adaptation.

This approach—giving nature some elbow room to adapt to the inevitable changes—will ensure resilience for Arctic biodiversity. Basing conservation efforts on a pan-Arctic network of MPAs will help meet new ambitious international conservation targets, such as those proposed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is calling for 30 per cent protection by 2030 (also known as the “30 by 30” goal). Such efforts will help safeguard the critical ecosystem functions that the world depends upon.

We can also establish conservation areas and balance them with economic use by applying an ecosystem approach to marine planning and management. But this will require a strong governance structure across the Arctic and must include areas beyond national jurisdiction. Collaboration among Arctic states to formulate and implement global agreements is key to viable and strong governance of the Central Arctic Ocean. These states stand to benefit from a strong, united voice if they cooperate in ongoing negotiations under the auspices of the UN General Assembly’s Implementing Agreement on Marine Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJs).

The Arctic Council—the Arctic region’s main governance body—could be an active and ambitious leader of the BBNJ process, either through its chairmanship with a corresponding mandate or through coordination among member states’ delegations. This is an opportunity for the Council to tackle Arctic-specific needs as it shapes the final global agreement and regional implementation.

WWF’s Arctic Programme is coordinating and leading key projects on networks of MPAs, species conservation and refugia, governance structure and sustainable development. This issue of The Circle explores these issues and more from different perspectives.

It is imperative that Arctic and non-Arctic nations curb the release of greenhouse gases and address the impacts of climate change on the Arctic Ocean, including its dramatic effects on biodiversity, habitats, wildlife and ecosystem services. This work must include deep transformational change across all sectors and nations. By solving for the future now, we are investing in a resilient and healthy Arctic from 2050 onward.

Peter Winsor
Director, WWF Arctic Programme
WWF Arctic Coordinating Team