Arctic is suffering from ‘governance gaps’

Maritime Journal, 26 May 2010

The legal instruments relevant to protecting the Arctic’s marine environment are numerous, yet also incoherent and incomplete say the World Wildlife Fund.

The Arctic is suffering from a fractured approach to governance of its resources. Photo: WWF

The environmental organisation considers the existing framework to be too focused either on individual issues or individual places to adequately cover the entire region. It also fails to take into account the cumulative effects of different offshore activities, such as fishing and oil and gas extraction.

A number of gaps appear to have emerged. These include the fact that the Arctic Council cannot impose legally binding obligations on its members, permanent participants or observers and it is not an operational body. It does not systematically evaluate whether its guidelines are being followed. It also has no independent funding and no permanent secretariat.

In short, the legal instruments do not provide sufficient protection for the arctic marine environment and do not provide for sustainable ecosystem based management of the Arctic Ocean. Also, every Arctic state just does its own thing, which has led to inconsistency of the national legislation, according to Dr Tatiana Saksina of the WWF.

However, the corrective options so far appear to be either sectoral based improvements such as adjusting existing fisheries agreements, adjusting existing international frameworks such as the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, or reforming the Arctic Council, a meeting place for the eight arctic states and indigenous peoples of the Arctic.

In WWF’s view, all these options either fall short of providing adequate protection for the arctic marine environment or are difficult to achieve.

The WWF commissioned three reports by international legal experts Timo Koivurova and Erik Molenaar. These say that given the pace of change, it is difficult to see how the Arctic and its ocean could be sustainably and coherently managed without an institution with the legal and political mandate to carry out the necessary changes to ensure the arctic ecosystem is protected. Rules alone, especially non-legally binding ones, are hardly enough to govern the new sea emerging from the sea ice. Therefore the authors conclude that one of the best options is to adopt a new multilateral agreement for the protection of the arctic marine environment and ecosystem based management of its resources.

A new, legally binding international framework agreement covering the entire marine Arctic across all sectors would allow for management on an ecosystem level, which is the best tool for ensuring sustainable management of marine resources.

Such an agreement should ensure protection and preservation of the ecological processes in the arctic marine environment, long term conservation and sustainable and equitable use of marine resources, socio-economic benefits for present and future generations, in particular for indigenous peoples, and action to address the unprecedented changes the Arctic is facing.

Indeed, the new Arctic Sea emerging from the melting ice urgently needs a regional regime tailor made for arctic conditions developed under the overarching framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).