Overline: Interview
Headline: In the Arctic, the consequences of climate change are particularly dramatic

As the Arctic Ocean is particularly affected by global temperature rise, more knowledge about this special habitat is needed. In six studies on the region, Ecologic Institute and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) describe the Arctic marine environment and the environmental pressures it faces. In this interview, lead study author Nicole Wienrich of the IASS discusses the project and its findings.

Nicole Wienrich
Nicole Wienrich IASS/Lotte Ostermann

1. Four studies on marine conservation in the Arctic are currently being published by the IASS. What is their goal? 

Nicole Wienrich: Through the case studies, we aim to provide an overview of issues relevant to marine conservation in the Arctic. In total, we conducted six studies together with our colleagues from Ecologic Institute, one report on each of the five Arctic coastal states and one combining information for the entire Arctic. The studies not only describe the Arctic marine environment, they also discuss significant pressures on it. Among other things, we address the socio-cultural and economic role of activities such as fishing, shipping, and oil and gas extraction in the various Arctic states. In the final section, we then give an overview of each of the regulations, rules, and instruments that are or could be used to protect Arctic marine biodiversity.

2. As the lead author, what basic recommendation can you make regarding marine conservation in this region?

N. W.: Basically, that marine conservation in the Arctic should be pushed more strongly. Time is of the essence. The impacts of climate change are being felt particularly strongly in the Arctic, and this poses major challenges to the local population in addition to the marine environment.

The existing network of marine protected areas in the Arctic should be expanded to protect habitats for marine life. At the same time, other conservation measures must be introduced and coordinated to ensure the protection of Arctic ecosystems and the sustainable use of the region's resources. All of these measures need adequate funding and must include dialogue and cooperation with local populations as well as across sectors and national borders. 

Action is also needed in other regions of the world, as many of the pressures facing the Arctic marine environment have their origins in human activities outside of the region.

3. What are the main pressures on marine biodiversity in the Arctic marine areas?

N. W.: Climate change is certainly one of the main pressures at present. Due to global warming, the Arctic is heating up rapidly and substantially faster than the global average. This rapid rise in temperature is already profoundly altering the Arctic marine ecosystems – and will continue to do so – with as yet unknown consequences for the region and the whole world. 

For example, the observed temperature rises are causing shifts in the distribution of marine organisms like fish. Overall, we are seeing a shift in the distribution areas towards the north. This, in turn, is problematic for species that already live in the far north and have few alternative areas available. On the other hand, less mobile species, such as corals or sponges, have only limited capacity to respond to the changes.

At the same time, melting sea ice in the Arctic is expanding opportunities to exploit Arctic oil and gas reserves, fish stocks, and sea lanes. Increased use will inevitably cause environmental damage and bring with it an increased risk of marine pollution.

4. What role do marine protected areas play in the Arctic?

N. W.: Marine protected areas have proven internationally to be indispensable tools for preserving the health of our oceans. They provide refuge for endangered species. Ideally, they enable a balance between marine conservation and sustainable economic development. However, the designation of marine protected areas is often complex and tedious. Moreover, the measures relate to clearly defined areas, which conversely means that marine protected areas may not contain the species or species groups they were created to protect in the future due to the impacts of climate change. 

In other words, in addition to marine protected areas, other tools and measures are urgently needed to protect the marine environment. These include, for example, vessel management measures based on the current distribution of marine mammals or special catch limits for fisheries. In addition, we need to think about how dynamic components of the ecosystem – such as sea ice – can be protected. 

5. What aspects surprised you during your research? 

N. W.: I was particularly surprised by the speed of the environmental changes. And I found it very inspiring to learn more about the Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic and their strong connection to the marine environment.

6. What ongoing multilateral processes are of particular importance to marine conservation in the Arctic?

N. W.: In the Arctic Ocean, as in other marine areas, international law and binding international agreements and policies apply to the use and protection of the oceans and their resources. Two important ongoing multilateral processes are the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the development of an international legally binding instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

The post-2020 global biodiversity framework will include goals and targets for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity by 2030. One of the goals currently being negotiated is to preserve at least 30 per cent of the planet by 2030 through a well-connected and effective system of protected areas and other effective area-based measures. If adopted this December at the CBD Conference of the Parties in Montreal, this target would underscore the need to designate more marine protected areas in the Arctic. 

The planned international instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, in turn, is intended to provide an overarching legal framework that will also apply in the Arctic and thus gives a further impulse for elaborating governance approaches for the region.

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