Arctic Peoples and Wildlife Receive Unique, Historic Protection

Kevin Harun
Date: May 15, 2015

Today, we celebrate a historic win for the Arctic, its wildlife, and its peoples. After years of negotiations, at 9 a.m. London time, the international community agreed to establish some special protections for this magnificent region.

The new laws, known as the Polar Code, forbid ships traversing the Arctic to dump garbage, sewage, and oil into the ocean. They also require that ship captains avoid large groupings of marine mammals when planning their routes through the Arctic.

Over the past three years, Pacific Environment’s hard-hitting advocacy and intense coalition work helped convince U.S. federal agencies and other countries to support strong protections for ocean life via regulations of shipping in Arctic seas.

Amidst the troubling news about Shell oil drilling this week, these protections don’t come a minute too soon. Sea ice is melting, and oil companies, mining businesses, and nations are racing to industrialize and “harvest” the resources of this “new ocean” emerging from the ice.

Commercial shipping is accelerating in these remote waters despite the extreme risks to mariners and the environment. There are long seasons of darkness, storms routinely reach hurricane force with extreme waves, the waters are filled with dangerous ice and poorly mapped, communication systems can easily fail. This is a region so remote that calls for help may not be readily answered. The next facility with people and equipment capable of responding to a severe accident or oil spill may be thousands of miles and weeks away.

Now there will be rules in place that protect 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.

Although these new rules establish important protections, they don’t go far enough. We will spend the next year to make sure that other critical issues will be regulated in a second version of the Polar Code: the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (which is nearly impossible to clean up in the event of an oil spill); reduction of black carbon (the most important contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide); dangerous toxic emissions from onboard ship incineration (which harm human health and marine mammals); and disposal of ballast and grey water (which may contain harmful chemicals and invasive species).

Still, let’s take a minute to enjoy this achievement. Tomorrow, our fight for the Arctic continues.