A New Sea: The Need for a Regional Agreement on Management and Conservation of the Arctic Marine Environment | WWF

A New Sea: The Need for a Regional Agreement on Management and Conservation of the Arctic Marine Environment

Posted on
22 January 2008


The Earth’s Arctic – the legendary home of the polar bear, the walrus, and the intrepid Inuit hunter – is at the threshold of historically unprecedented ecological change. This change, forced by accelerating global warming, will drastically alter the fundamental conditions of life in the Arctic over the next few decades.  The impacts of this change will be felt, not just by wildlife, but by the 4 million people who live on the margins of the Arctic Ocean, and particularly by the traditional communities who derive their subsistence from its marine mammals and fisheries.  This change will also present new opportunities for development in this remote and previously inhospitable region.  To ensure sustainable development for the region’s people, and the protection of the region’s natural and living resources, these opportunities must be managed in a coordinated way by the Arctic nations.

The 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) and even more recent climate research clearly show that climate change is altering the fabric of the entire polar region.  There is already clear evidence that the melting of the ice cover is having an impact on the flora and fauna of the region. As the ice melts, the ecosystem of the Arctic is being transformed; ice-dependent species indigenous to the region, such as polar bear, walrus, ringed seal, murre and ivory gull appear to face a dire future.  

At the same time, opportunities are expanding for economic activities and development of the Arctic region’s plentiful natural resources.  Three new development opportunities in particular – the prospect of new shipping routes, expanded oil and gas development, and new commercial fishing – could generate system-wide environmental impacts and will therefore likely pose novel management challenges for the arctic nations.  

Over the past fifteen years, the arctic nations have established an initial framework for cooperation in addressing issues of mutual concern in the Arctic.  The existing cooperative framework, embodied in the Arctic Council, is characterized by a ‘soft law’ or essentially voluntary approach, reflecting the lack of appetite of at least some of the Arctic governments for more strenuous treaty arrangements.  Issues are generally brought forward for consideration first and foremost as technical issues, with the result that a priority has been placed on scientific research and problem identification, with less emphasis on cooperative remedial action.  The existing arrangement is also a ‘low-cost’ approach, with no permanent secretariat and few real resources for cooperative action.

To be effective, a strengthened management framework for the Arctic must be comprehensive and ecosystem-based, must provide for the effective management of human activities in the Arctic so that the region’s living resources can be conserved, and must assure that development is sustainable and does not neglect the welfare of traditional communities.

There are a number of steps that can be taken in order to move towards such a framework, including steps to strengthen the existing Arctic Council and give it more decision-making power.  However, there are also built-in limitations to a forum-based collaborative approach such as the Council.  Other available approaches, for which there are useful models in other regions, include the establishment of a regional fisheries management organization or a regional sea agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), each of which would require negotiations among the arctic governments.  Ultimately, it appears that a regional treaty arrangement could form the strongest basis for a management framework capable of conserving the Arctic’s living resources and making sure that existing and new economic activities in the region are sustainable for the future.


BROOKS YEAGER is the Executive Vice President of the Climate Policy Center.  He held a number of senior environmental policy positions in the Clinton Administration, including leading global negotiations as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Development at the U.S. Department of State from 1999 – 2000, and coordinating natural resource policy as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs under U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.  From 2001 until 2005, Mr Yeager was the Vice President of the Global Threats Program at the WWF-U.S. headquarters office in Washington, DC.  Prior to his government service, he directed the Washington, DC office of the Audubon Society, led energy and wilderness conservation campaigns for the Sierra Club, and worked on the legislative staff of U.S. Representative Jim Weaver (D-Oregon), specialising in environmental issues.  As Principal of Birdwell Strategies and Senior Vice President of David Gardiner Associates, Mr Yeager has also consulted widely with environmental and public interest organisations and foundations.  Mr Yeager received his undergraduate degree from Stanford University.
DR ROBERT HUEBERT is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary.  He is also the Associate Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.  Dr Huebert has taught at Memorial University, Dalhousie University, and the University of Manitoba.  His research interests include international relations, strategic studies, the Law of the Sea, maritime affairs, Canadian foreign and defence policy, and circumpolar relations.

For further information, please contact:
Dr Neil T. M. Hamilton, Director, WWF International Arctic Programme,
(+47) 9300 5660

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