Hong Kong Customs displays 82.5kg of rhino horns from South Africa and destined for Malaysia. Photo: ISD

What Does the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship Mean for Belugas and Other Arctic Species?

By Danielle Grabiel, EIA Senior Policy Analyst

Today, Secretary of State John Kerry is in Iqaluit, Canada, to accept the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, and with it to take on a rare opportunity to shape the future of the region. Founded in 1996, the Arctic Council is an intergovernmental organization including all eight Arctic nations as well as representatives from the region’s indigenous peoples and local communities.

The Council is a forum for Arctic region issues, including environmental protection and sustainable development. To date, however, the Council has done very little to secure tangible protections for the Arctic environment and wildlife. The Council’s working groups have produced exceptional research and analysis and proposed thoughtful policy recommendations to protect the region’s biodiversity, but the Council has shied away from both binding and voluntary agreements to turn these recommendations into action.

Secretary Kerry and the newly appointed U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic, Admiral Robert Papp, have made it clear that they plan to take the Council in a bold direction on climate change, among other things. As Papp said when he was appointed, “We want to put the Council on steroids.”

EIA welcomes Admiral Papp’s enthusiastic approach and agrees that the Arctic Council needs to get off the couch and start moving in a greener direction. In particular, EIA hopes his ambitious agenda includes putting more U.S. muscle behind the Council’s work on marine mammal and ecosystem protections, and we will be actively engaging Admiral Papp and his team to ensure they do.

Admiral Papp’s chance to lead hasn’t come a moment too soon. The survival and welfare of beluga whales and other Arctic marine mammals depends on a healthy Arctic ecosystem and strong environmental leadership will be absolutely essential as the region warms and becomes increasingly accessible to industrial development.

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of other regions of the world, and this has already had a major direct impact on marine and terrestrial ecosystems, including belugas and other species found only in the Arctic. Both Russia’s Northern Sea Route and Canada’s fabled Northwest Passage offer faster routes than comparable southern routes, which means that more global shipping traffic will begin to pass along both routes as sea ice retreats. Maintaining these routes is expected to require the regular use of ice breakers, drastically increasing noise pollution in the region and increasing the possibility of whale ship strikes.

Oil and gas activities in the Arctic also pose a significant threat to belugas. The United States Geological Survey estimates that 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil is located north of the Arctic Circle. Approximately 84 percent of these reserves are located offshore and thus require seismic exploration, which can have serious consequences for marine mammals. Arctic conditions will make any potential oil spills nearly impossible to clean up, yet the beluga’s fidelity to specific bodies of water may lead them to contaminated areas on a regular basis. Additionally, cold weather, thick ice cover, and a lack of sunlight will slow the breakdown of spilt oil. Clean up or rescue vehicles and workers will be hampered by extreme conditions, which are expected to decrease emergency response times.

These concerns are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the threats faced by belugas in a rapidly changing Arctic.

EIA applauds Admiral Papp for putting black carbon and methane emissions at the top if his agenda, but more must be done to ensure that the Arctic’s unique ecosystems and biodiversity receive the rigorous protection they deserve. EIA supports the creation of a pan-Arctic marine protected area network to establish lasting protections for belugas and other Arctic species. We plan to work closely with Admiral Papp and his team to move discussions of such a network and other ambitious protections forward, but our success will be constrained by the willingness of Arctic Council nations to do more than just talk.

The Arctic is melting at a frightening pace. It is one of the last truly pristine places on the planet. We cannot afford to talk any longer. The time to establish necessary safeguards in the Arctic is now.