Just two decades ago, most of the Arctic Ocean was covered in ice all year long. But climate change has caused the Arctic to heat up twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and the region is rapidly losing its natural protective layer of ice. Oil, gas, fishing and shipping interests are targeting these newly exposed waters. The Arctic’s polar bears, beluga whales, narwhals and other rare creatures are caught in the crosshairs.
Imagine if Yellowstone National Park were suddenly thrown open to drilling or the waters of Acadia National Park became a thoroughfare for container ships. Americans would not let these treasures of our natural heritage become industrialized, because we have learned the value of setting aside wild and unique places.
We have a chance to apply those lessons in the Arctic, one of the wildest and most unique places on the planet. But we must move quickly, before polluting industries despoil the region’s marine ecosystems beyond repair.
The time to start is now. Today Secretary of State John Kerry will join foreign ministers from the eight Arctic nations and several indigenous groups for the biennial meeting of the Arctic Council. The ministers are expected to endorse recommendations to protect ecologically important habitats—wild places that are especially critical to the long-term survival of fish, whales, and other marine life.
Summer sea ice in the Arctic, Photo Credit: NOAA
The equivalent of national parks under water, these protected areas are designated off limits to commercial fishing, drilling, mining, or other industrial activity. They would provide refuge for the array of Arctic creatures already under severe stress due to the warming ocean and loss of sea ice.
Scientific research shows that marine protected areas work best when they are linked together in a coordinated network. If we protect seal’s feeding habitat, for instance, but don’t protect where seals breed, we won’t help them survive in a changing climate. If we preserve one stretch of a humpback whale migration route, but leave the rest open to drilling, we could imperil the future of the species. By carefully connecting key ecosystems, we can help make marine life more resilient in the face of climate change.
By embracing the concept of protecting important ocean hotpots, the ministers are taking a welcome step forward in oceans management. It shows that the international community is learning from past mistakes that led people to deplete, degrade, and pollute virtually every other ocean on the planet. But we need to move quickly to turn conceptual recommendations into action with firm commitments, goals, and timetables for preserving critical biological hotspots from destructive industrial activity.
The opportunity to make progress is at our doorstep. The U.S. will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council two years from now, presenting a chance to set the agenda, marshal resources, and spur governments to act. We need to get started in laying out ambitious goals for the Arctic Ocean and a roadmap for achieving them by the time the U.S. hands over the Chairmanship in 2017.
We urge Secretary Kerry to make the Arctic Ocean one of his signature issues. Secretary Kerry has an unusually sophisticated understanding of ocean issues. He served as Chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard and was a member of the Senate Oceans Caucus. He has consistently shown interest in the Arctic and repeatedly spoken about the need to respond to climate change and restore the planet’s oceans. Now he can move forward on all fronts.
He may need to work hard, however, to push the Obama Administration to take concrete action to protect the Arctic. The White House recently released its National Strategy for the Arctic Region, a document that made its drive for energy development clear but fell short on details for how to preserve fragile ecosystems. Secretary Kerry can help fill in those details, especially for the Arctic Ocean.
The U.S. is already a strong advocate for fishing safeguards in the Arctic’s international waters. Secretary Kerry has the opportunity to build on this progress and take the lead in establishing an international network of marine protected areas in the Arctic by the end of the US Chairmanship.
Greenland, Canada, Finland and Sweden have already indicated willingness to move forward on a network of protected areas in the Arctic, and Russia has been a leader in protecting important marine areas in its own waters. Secretary Kerry should capitalize on this accelerating international momentum—and create a lasting conservation legacy for his office and the United States in the process.
This would be a major breakthrough for the oceans. It would mean that nations can come together to conserve marine life before it is compromised. And it means wee can preserve the last wild ocean right from the start.