A big win for the Arctic Ocean

President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau today announced an ambitious, broad array of initiatives that herald a new day in our cross-border partnership to combat dangerous climate change, transition to a cleaner and more prosperous economy, and protect our shared Arctic environment while supporting the indigenous communities who call it home.

For the Arctic Ocean, the announcement is a giant step forward for conservation of the Arctic marine environment and the people who depend on it.

The commitment of the two leaders to protecting more than 10% of the US and Canadian Arctic Ocean by 2020, and to play a leadership role in creating a pan-Arctic network of MPAs, is particularly heartening.

The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on the planet, resulting in the dramatic loss of sea ice, which underpins the ecology of the Arctic marine environment. Walrus, narwhal, polar bears, polar cod, ice seals, arctic birds and arctic fish reside or feed on or under the ice, their life cycles exquisitely timed to its seasonal ebb and flow. The loss of summer sea ice is taking with it with it the future of these animals and the people who depend on them for sustenance and cultural survival.

Disappearing sea ice also means that previously inaccessible areas are rapidly opening up to development, particularly oil and gas extraction, shipping and fishing. Accidents, oil spills, pollution, invasive species, overfishing, bottom trawling, underwater noise, and a host of other impacts related to industrial development pose major additional threats to a region already under severe stress from global warming and ocean acidification.

A shrinking window exists to protect key marine ecosystems from major new industrial activity made possible by the rapid loss of summer sea ice. Marine protected areas - sanctuaries for ocean wildlife - are an important tool to help maintain the biodiversity and resilience of Arctic marine ecosystems and communities that depend on them as they face profound changes. Only a tiny fraction of the Arctic marine environment has been protected to date (in contrast, roughly eight percent of the Arctic terrestrial environment enjoys some level of recognition and protection). Because many species of whales, fish, birds, seals and other Arctic marine wildlife are highly migratory, it is not enough to pursue MPAs independently on a country-by-country basis. Coordinated international action is needed to ensure that the full spectrum of key habitats for different species are protected.

The announcement today reflects a recognition that cooperative, transboundary action to create a pan-Arctic network of MPAs is urgently needed. Together with other elements of the announcement, including the two leaders' intent to pursue low impact shipping corridors, which will minimize the effects of ocean noise and other ship-borne pollutants, along with a broader agreement on a moratorium on high seas fishing, the joint commitment to protect fragile and globally unique marine habitats represent a historic step forward for the Arctic Ocean. Looking forward, full protection of these MPAs will also require ending the threat of oil spills, which can travel thousands of miles on Arctic currents and ice floes. But that does not detract from the magnitude of today's path-breaking announcement.

See blogs by my colleagues reacting to other aspects of the joint initiatives announced today.

About the Authors

Lisa Speer

Director, International Oceans program

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