Protecting the Russian Arctic | WWF

Protecting the Russian Arctic

Geographical location:

Europe/Middle-East > Eastern Europe > Russian Federation

Ross gull. Yakutsk (Yakutia). Lena river. Russia.
© WWF Russia / Viktor Nikiforov


Covering about 6.2 million square kilometres, the Russian Arctic is home to large populations of wild reindeer (caribou), walruses and more than 7,000 polar bears. There are also numerous oil and gas projects here that pose a tremendous threat to the Arctic environment.

WWF and its partners are working with oil and gas companies to ensure that the best available monitoring measures are being used to protect the fragile environment. WWF is also working to create a system of protected areas, both on land and at sea.


The Russian Arctic covers about 6.2 million km2. The shelf of the Russian North-East Atlantic/Arctic and Pacific seas covers circa 5.3 million km2, equivalent to 17% of the entire World Ocean shelf.

The Marine Russian zone in the Arctic consists of 2 big marine ecoregions - the Bering and Barents Seas, each with unique biota and rich but fragile ecosystems. There are several serious threats caused by Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing, bycatch and discard. The importance of these seas in terms of biodiversity on a global scale is enormous due to the remarkable variety of seafloor habitats and communities.

The Northwestern Pacific not only claims the 2nd highest number of commercial fish species in the world, but has also been identified by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as 1 of 3 areas that combined comprise 50% of the total world catch annually. The total catch of Russia has decreased significantly since the early 1990s, and now amounts to only 4-5% of the total world catch. However, this figure does not include fish caught illegally. Russian vessels are involved in IUU fishing in many marine ecoregions. In the Barents and Bering Seas, Russian boats are chiefly responsible for the illegal fishing of pollock (Bering) and cod (Barents).

A further threat to the region comes from methane degassing as the permafrost melts. Huge Siberian (and smaller Canadian) wetlands have accumulated about 70 billion tons of methane since their formation after the last glacial period. Increased summer melting of permafrost removes this physical barrier and methane is degassing faster than before. In 2006, scientific estimates suggested full degassing is not 1,000 years away as previously expected, but 250 or even 100 years.

In this context, any attempt to extract this methane (in the form of ice-like methane-hydrates) is extremely dangerous and should be outlawed. Moreover, any disturbance on melted tundra can increase methane degassing. Industrial activities which can accelerate methane release must be controlled to prevent huge GHG emissions.

According to Russian Ministry of Natural Resources forecasts, the Russian Arctic holds about 15.5 billion tons of oil and 84.5 trillion m3 of natural gas. This amounts to almost 20-25% of world reserves. This sector has developed rapidly over the last few decades and requires careful monitoring.

There are numerous ongoing oil and gas projects in Russia that pose a tremendous threat to the Arctic ecosystem. The main activity is in the Barents Sea region - LUKoil on-shore oil pipeline and marine terminal Varandei, Rosneft and Gazprom off-shore and on-shore projects. There are many on-shore projects planned in the tundras of Western Siberia (Vankor oil fields in Krasnoyarski region). There is preparation for an oil project development in Eastern Siberia.

The Russian marine protected areas (MPAs) system is practically absent with just one real MPA in Russia - the Far East Biosphere Marine Reserve. With limited protected and buffer zones, the development of a network of PAs and MPAs will be critical to sustain the possibility of adaptation for wildlife species, including polar bears (WWF’s main flagship species in the Arctic), walrus, and fish stocks. The creation and maintenance of PAs will need to be matched by strategic efforts to reduce non-climate threats (over-fishing, oil and gas development) and by the creation of a new intergovernmental framework for ecosystem management in the Arctic maritime environment.

The report on IUU fisheries in the Barents Sea raised concern at local and international levels. A large and ambitious 3-year salmon conservation project started in Kamchatka a year ago and some tangible results have already been achieved. Good relations and successful cooperation with the Ministry of Natural Resources and regional bodies on development and support for the Russian PA system provide for a strong background for further work in this area, where a system of marine PAs would be the main goal.

Through WWF projects, more than 40 million ha of PAs were created in Russia, and the area of strictly protected nature areas was doubled. The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources asked WWF to develop the complete scheme of terrestrial PAs in 2006. These plans will be completed in July 2007. Due to a lack of funds such a scheme for marine PAs has not yet been developed.

The largest population of wild reindeer (caribou) lives here, as well as millions of migrating birds and the Siberian crane which nests in this region. A population of more than 7,000 polar bears inhabits the Russian Arctic. Since 1995, WWF has developed and implemented national strategies and corresponding action plans for conservation of the Amur tiger, Far Eastern and snow leopards, Argali and European bison. Changes in habitats of Arctic flagship species like polar bears and Siberian cranes require the development of adaptation plans for their survival in new climate conditions.

The project proposal addresses regional needs of the Russian Federation Arctic zone, which covers a significant part of the Northern circumpolar area, while the WWF Arctic Network Initiative (NI) is the main partner in this work.


1. Establish climate change witness from Russia; effective communication on radical greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction (draft treaty adopted in 2009-2010); recognition of Arctic as vulnerable global indicator; willingness of Russian officials and public to take actions to protect the Arctic.

2. Studies and data from Russia on danger methane ‘feedback’ (permafrost melting) are systemised and available. By 2009 the problem is featured in global media and international discussions.

3. Constructive dialogue with all oil and gas companies working in Arctic is further developed, leading to implementation of best available monitoring, prevention and mitigation measures.

4.1 Fishery management based on ecological considerations is regionalized; relevant plans have been developed and are ready for implementation.

4.2 IUU fishing and bycatch problems understood and minimized. At least 1 Russian Arctic fishery is under assessment or pre-assessment according to Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) principles.

5.1 By 2009 the scheme of national marine PA is designed to support climate change resilience building and Arctic biodiversity conservation.

5.2 By 2009 resilience building is included in spatial planning (support of coastal PAs). Support to existing PAs in the Russian Arctic to address properly climate change threats.

5.3 Climate change adaptation policies (including caribou and indigenous people problems) are under development and official discussion in 2 pilot ecoregions - Yakutiya and Chukotka. By 2009, completion of the development of climate change adaptations plans for these regions.

5.4 By 2009, conservation of polar bear improved through implementation of the conservation strategy and establishment of full-scale national monitoring system.


Greenhouse gases and climate witness
The project addresses 2 crucial points: to influence global circles (in particular, UN negotiations on GHG emissions) towards the 2°C scenario for key countries, including Russia, and resilience building for key species and ecosystems, key outputs include:

1) Recognition of the Arctic as a vulnerable global indicator.
2) Readiness of public to take action.
3) Adoption by the Russian officials of a positive view on joint efforts to protect the Arctic.

An additional output may be the creation of a Russian national Arctic climate adaptation fund (e.g. partially funded by Kyoto economic mechanisms like the Green Investment Scheme) and/or a fund to support Energy Efficiency in the Arctic funded by Kyoto mechanisms.

Siberian Arctic large-scale methane degassing
This is a new, growing, global problem. WWF’s role is to publicise the problem, and involve Russian scientists, NGOs and stakeholders into a relevant Arctic Network Initiative (NI) activity. This is a crucial step to ban extraction of methane hydrates for energy use.

Oil and gas
Oil and gas developments have increased due to the fact that most oil and gas fields in other parts of Russia have already reached peak production. Furthermore, climate change means there are new opportunities for oil exploration and transportation on the market through the Arctic seas (along the Russian coastline - Sevmorput - the Northern Path). Negative impacts could be minimised through prevention - no go zones, risk assessment and effective environmental impact assessment (EIA) - and mitigation tools, applying the best available practice, all stage project monitoring, etc.

WWF cooperates with responsible fishermen and indigenous people, and local communities, introducing responsible fishery principles reflected in the FAO Code of Conduct, disseminating international experience, supporting sustainable renewable resources exploitation prevalence over mineral development (oil and gas, gold, platinum, etc) or its reasonable combination. WWF aims to conserve the potential for the Arctic wildlife and natural systems to regional climate change through a) the protection of essential marine and coastal habitat for the conservation of fish stocks, marine mammal and seabird populations, and b) the elaboration of an intergovernmental framework for ecosystem management of the Arctic marine environment.

Protected areas
1) First comprehensive scheme for marine PAs designed.
2) Manuals for creation of new PAs developed.
3) National strategy and action plan for conservation of the polar bear developed and approved by a respective national agency.
4) Management plan for the adaptation of caribou farming by indigenous aboriginal people will be developed and put into practice.

The major risks of the project are connected to the political situation in Russia and relevant NGO regulations. There is also a strong nationalisation trend in the Russian oil and gas sector, which is likely to lead to less transparency and stakeholder involvement in decision making around oil and gas projects. Other barriers are weak government enforcement of environmental regulations and absence of environmental policies and practices in the fisheries.

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