The Arctic Ocean and Wildlife Warrant Special International Protection

05/22/2015 10:55 am ET | Updated May 22, 2016
Shutterstock / Volodymyr Goinyk

Co-authored by Alex Levinson and Kevin Harun, Pacific Environment

Imagine traveling seas beset by hurricane force winds, extreme waves, poorly charted waters, and long seasons of darkness. Where calls for help may not be readily answered. Now, imagine pristine seas where exotic wildlife, some traveling great distances to feed or have their young, are found in abundance. A place that has sustained capable, local people for millenniums.

This is not a science fiction adventure to some far off planet. Instead, both descriptions could be applied to navigating Arctic waters. Both fearsome and plentiful, the arctic merits special attention.

Amidst the recent troubling news that Shell Oil has received conditional approval to drill in Arctic waters, a separate, critical victory for the larger Arctic ecosystem was overshadowed.

After over a decade of negotiations, international rules are set to provide mandatory protections for the Arctic Ocean. The new laws, known as the Polar Code, are being enacted by a United Nations agency and will be the first mandatory protections for polar waters. Why is this exceptional? Because the international community for the first time is formally recognizing that Arctic seas and wildlife warrant special safeguards.

The Arctic Ocean includes some of the world's richest and most extraordinary marine resources - pristine fisheries, an abundance of marine mammals, and densely populated sea bird nesting colonies. Indigenous peoples in Alaska, Russia, Canada, and elsewhere across the Arctic continue to practice traditional ways of life that rely on Arctic coastal waters for food.

But now, the sea ice is melting - possibly to disappear entirely in the summer as early as 2020. Oil companies, mining industries, and many nations are racing to industrialize and "harvest" the resources of this "new ocean" emerging from the ice. Commercial shipping is accelerating in these remote regions despite the extreme risks to mariners and the environment.

The arctic marine environment is remote, dangerous, fragile - and severe. Storms routinely reach hurricane force, waters are ice-filled and poorly mapped, communication systems can easily fail, and substantive spill response or search and rescue can be thousands of miles and weeks away.

The new Polar Code is the first step toward wholesale recognition that Arctic waters and wildlife are unique and deserve special protections. The Code requires that ship captains plan their routes to avoid marine mammals. The Code bans ships from dumping oily wastes and garbage. It imposes important rules for ships operating in remote, ice-choked waters regarding their design, operations, sailor training, and search and rescue requirements.

The Polar Code is a critical first achievement, but it fails to tackle some of the most dangerous remaining threats - highlighting the need for the international community to quickly adopt additional protective provisions via a second phase.

The number one need is to ban heavy fuel oil. The Arctic Council - a forum for Arctic nations and peoples -- has identified a spill of heavy fuel oil as the greatest potential threat to Arctic marine resources. This oil - thicker, more viscous, and dirtier than lighter grades - is both shipped as cargo and used as a transport fuel by ships transiting Arctic seas. Because it does not evaporate, heavy fuel oil in severe Arctic conditions would be virtually impossible to clean up if spilled, for example, in waters where arctic birds and wildlife concentrate.

For these reasons, heavy fuel oil was banned in Antarctic waters in 2010. It should be kept out of Arctic waters too.

A revised Polar Code should also regulate "black carbon" emissions from ships - which are known to accelerate ice melt and climate change - and much more stringently regulate ships unprepared for icy, stormy waters thousands of miles from aid.

Environmental accomplishments are hard to come by and need to be celebrated. We're toasting with champagne this week to acknowledge the achievement that the nations of the world have recognized the Arctic Ocean's special fragility. But we'll put away the champagne glasses tomorrow and get back to work. We need to ensure that this week's accomplishment is only the beginning of a more comprehensive protective scheme for one of the earth's great natural regions.

Alex Levinson and Kevin Harun are, respectively, the CEO and Arctic Director of Pacific Environment, an international environmental group that has partnered with local and indigenous communities in Russia, China, California, and the Alaskan Arctic for more than two decades.