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Slow Progress in Protecting Polar Waters

Overlap of beluga whale migration and ship traffic in the Barents Sea Ecoregion

Ship traffic overlaps significantly with the migration of beluga whales in the Barents Sea ecoregion, highlighting the need to develop strong environmental regulations for polar shipping. Image courtesy of ArkGIS project, led by WWF-Norway. Purple and brown areas show locations of belugas and black lines the directions of their seasonal migrations. Yellow, orange and red lines indicate medium to high shipping traffic density.

 

Yesterday, I talked about the justification for imposing new requirements on ships that operate in polar waters. The good news is that countries with major presences in the Arctic and Antarctic agree that such requirements are necessary, and over the past decade have made slow but steady progress towards creating them. The bad news is that these countries aren’t supporting stringent environmental rules on the kinds of activities that will harm polar ecosystems the most, so even if the Polar Code is completed by the scheduled date, it might not do much good.

Originally, in 2002, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) developed guidelines for vessels in Arctic waters. Shortly thereafter in 2004, the countries that govern the Antarctic (these countries have signed the Antarctic Treaty) asked the IMO to revise the Arctic guidelines to cover the Antarctic. In addition to this, it was agreed that the guidelines should be made mandatory. The target completion date for this Polar Code was initially 2012, but now has been moved to 2014/15 at the earliest . This is still an optimistic target, particularly since in 2012 the IMO decided to delay planned work on the Code for a full year, until 2013. Furthermore, at the sub-committee meetings where the Polar Code is discussed, countries that supported the Code do not take advantage of opportunities to develop a strong and meaningful environmental chapter. What’s even more disheartening is that there seems to be little political will to include rules in the Code that will make it truly effective in protecting the environment and human life, even though they believe they are important.

One example of this puzzling attitude is the lack of action by Arctic Council countries. The Arctic Council is a group of eight Arctic countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States) that have come together to discuss Arctic issues, including environmental protection. In 2011, the Council’s working group on Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) issued recommendations arising from a report analyzing how to ensure environmental and human safety in Arctic shipping. These crystal-clear, fact-based recommendations are of direct relevance to the Polar Code, covering topics such as the use of heavy fuel oil, invasive species, emissions, and oil spill prevention. The Council says it is taking steps to implement the recommendations. But judging by the latest draft of the Polar Code, these steps don’t include putting relevant requirements into the Code, even though this would be the most effective method of implementation.

From the Antarctic side, it’s unclear if the Polar Code will benefit the southern polar region significantly. The Southern Ocean already has some extra protections under IMO rules, including a designation as a special area (meaning there are extra restrictions on some types of pollution and waste disposal) and a ban on the use of heavy fuel oil. But additional measures restricting sewage and oily discharges, and regulating grey water (i.e., water that has been used for washing, cooking, etc.) would make the Code more meaningful for the Antarctic – as well as protecting Arctic waters.

Arctic sea ice extent has reached record lows, and the West Antarctic Peninsula has been one of the fastest warming areas on the planet. The impact of climate change on polar regions is clearly no longer theoretical. Even with warmer temperatures, the Arctic and the Antarctic will be different from the rest of the world’s oceans, and need extra protection to preserve their unique ecosystems as much as possible. We shouldn’t waste this important opportunity to protect polar wildlife and human life before there’s a major oil spill and human lives have been lost. This means countries working on the Polar Code, especially Arctic countries and countries with a strong presence in Antarctica, should use their time in London this week wisely, and put tougher environmental restrictions into the Code right now.