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Central Arctic Ocean: Next Steps on the Arctic’s Newest International Agreement

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A Bloomberg editorial described it as a “minor miracle” and Quartz magazine called it a “stunning victory” for global conservation in its 2017 retrospective. In December, 10 countries reached an agreement to prevent the start of commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) for at least 16 years while scientists study the effects of climate change on this pristine sea. As a member of the U.S. delegation, I’ve had a back-row seat on four years of talks leading to the culmination of this landmark accord. When I left the conference room where delegates had just politely applauded and shaken hands last December, I wondered what the next steps would be to translate this miracle into reality.

A group of lawyers from each country met in January to perfect the language of the text. Next, translators will render it into four official languages. And then, hopefully this summer, the countries will formally sign the agreement and each party will then ratify or approve it. Although the agreement won’t officially take effect until all of the parties have done this—which could take several years—each signatory has a duty to not undermine its purposes in the meantime.

Beyond these technicalities (as important as they are), the next substantive step is to start breathing life into the joint program of scientific research and monitoring called for in the agreement. The first goal of this scientific cooperation, according to the accord, is “increasing knowledge of the living marine resources of the CAO and the ecosystems in which they occur.” Because the CAO has been locked in ice for most of human history, very little biological research has been conducted in these distant waters—beyond 200 miles from Arctic coastlines. As ice recedes, we have an opportunity to conduct this research including: gather and interpret baseline data on the plankton, fishes, whales, seabirds, seals, and polar bears that likely inhabit the CAO; study their interactions; and begin to track changes in ecosystem dynamics and populations in response to continued ocean warming and sea ice melting.

Simple CAO Map 4Blog v2Simple CAO Map 4Blog v2

With a firmer understanding of life in this ocean and its response to climate change, such knowledge can inform the second purpose of the joint program: determining whether fish stocks exist that might be commercially viable on a sustainable basis without negatively affecting this ecosystem.

This kind of research is a tall order in the distant Arctic sea. Fortunately, all the parties to the agreement have scientists who specialize in the Arctic. And many Arctic countries like Russia, Canada and the U.S., as well as non-Arctic countries like South Korea and China, have some ice-breaking research capability that can reach the CAO. In addition, indigenous people who live on Arctic coasts have traditional knowledge to contribute. The agreement wisely recognizes their interest in healthy Arctic marine ecosystems and explicitly calls for the use of both science and traditional knowledge. So, the new joint program has some important resources to employ. It can coordinate existing research capacity and increase its efficacy and reach by helping to build international research teams and data-sharing protocols. It can also incorporate indigenous knowledge by involving Arctic indigenous experts from the beginning.

Now, how to best organize this joint program of scientific research? The Arctic already has a lot of research underway through cooperative networks although none of these projects explicitly focus on the CAO. A recent paper published by my colleagues analyzed the research gaps that the joint program will need to fill, as well as the capacity and geographic focus of existing research networks. They concluded that a new marine science organization was needed. Three panels of international Arctic researchers that convened over the last couple of years in China, Japan and Korea came to the same conclusion. And a similar idea has been recommended by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and the Alaska fishing industry.

What happens after an agreement like this is signed? The work begins!

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People of the Ice Bridge

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During winter in the high-latitude Arctic Ocean, sea ice reflects much of the sun’s energy until seasonal melting promotes a spectacular plankton bloom along floe edges and even beneath the ice. The annual explosion of Arctic life starts first in polynyas, areas of northern sea kept perennially ice-free by wind and currents set in motion by the Earth’s rotation. During this spring bloom, the North Water polynya between Canada and Greenland is the single most productive part of the ocean north of the Arctic Circle.

Fueled by a profusion of Arctic cod that feed on plankton, this polynya becomes the centerpiece for one of the world’s great spring migrations of walrus, seals, polar bears, beluga, bowhead whales and roughly 80 to 90 percent of the planet’s narwhal population. It provides the feeding and breeding grounds for millions of seabirds, including an estimated two-thirds of the world’s dovekies and thick-billed murres.

Inuit in Canada and Greenland have known this about the North Water polynya for millennia. They call it Pikialasorsuaq, or the Great Upwelling, in Greenlandic. Their ancestors once used the ice bridge across its northern edge to migrate into what is now Greenland. And Inuit in Canada and Greenland still live near the polynya and rely upon its bounty for life-sustaining activities like hunting and fishing.

Befitting their connection to this amazing part of the Arctic, Inuit in both countries have taken the lead in planning for its future. An Inuit-led commission recently published People of the Ice Bridge: The Future of the Pikialasorsuaq, a report that made three recommendations to protect this region and its people:

  1. Establish an Inuit management authority to ensure conservation of living marine resources and health of communities that depend on them and lead an Inuit community-based monitoring program;
  2. Identify a protected area that includes the polynya itself and a larger management zone that connects Inuit communities to the polynya; and,
  3. Establish a free-travel zone for Inuit across the region.

By looking at the entire region, the report’s three-part framework embodies the best kind of eco-regional planning and thinking and challenges governments to think creatively about implementing a regional approach. The report is also one model for how to create durable conservation in a fast-changing Arctic with leadership and participation of Inuit. The call for Inuit co-management and monitoring in Pikialasorsuaq echoes what Inuit leader Mary Simon recommended in her report A New Shared Arctic Leadership Model that was commissioned by the Canadian government. Simon emphasized how approaches to marine conservation like indigenous protected areas can play a crucial role in reconciliation between governments and indigenous people in the North.

Inuit leaders are now working to implement the Pikialasorsuaq Commission’s recommendations with Canada and Greenland, and will need to continue to innovate to protect one of the Arctic’s most important places. Conservationists like Ocean Conservancy and Oceans North, our colleagues in Canada, will continue to support this and other community-driven conservation efforts.

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5 Things About the Aleutian Islands Waterways Safety Committee

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This past Wednesday, I took part in the first full meeting of the Aleutian Islands Waterways Safety Committee in Anchorage, Alaska. Here are five things you should know about this new group:

  1. The Committee is brand new. It was established late in 2017 to provide a forum for mariners and other stakeholders to exchange information and to establish best practices that will promote safety in the region. In time, the Committee will develop and disseminate a waterways safety plan for the Aleutian Islands region. Committee members include a wide range of stakeholders who represent many different maritime interest groups, including Alaska Native interests, shipping industry interests, commercial fishing interests and conservation organizations (which are represented by Ocean Conservancy).

  2. The Committee is the largest of its kind in the country. Many areas in the lower-48 have “Harbor Safety Committees” to facilitate development of best practices for local marine areas. These can be highly effective—but they generally cover a pretty limited area. There’s also an Arctic Waterways Safety Committee that covers a much bigger area. It encompasses U.S. portions of the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea, as well as much of the northern U.S. Bering Sea. But the Aleutian Islands Waterways Safety Committee covers an even bigger area, which extends north and south of the entire U.S. portion of the 1200-mile Aleutian Island chain, including the Pribilof Islands.

  3. The area covered by the Committee forms part of the North Pacific Great Circle Route, a busy shipping corridor between North America and East Asia. Recently, more than 4,500 vessels per year travel through Unimak Pass, a gap between two of the islands in the Aleutian archipelago. Many of these are large, deep-draft vessels like container ships and bulk carriers that may carry hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel. The waters surrounding the Aleutian islands also have an incredible abundance of marine life. They host a rich diversity of fish, birds and marine mammals; important subsistence fisheries; and some of the largest and most valuable commercial fisheries in the country.
  4. The Committee has its roots in a shipping disaster. In 2004, the M/V Selendang Ayu ran aground in the Aleutians, costing six people their lives and releasing roughly 350,000 gallons of fuel into the water. That tragedy led to the initiation of a comprehensive risk assessment that involved a broad range of stakeholders. Upon its conclusion, the risk assessment recommended, among other things, continuing to convene waterway users to share information and promote best practices in the region. This recommendation eventually led to the founding of the Aleutian Islands Waterways Safety Committee.
  5. The Committee has a great website that hosts information about the Committee, its members, and past and upcoming meetings. It also hosts relevant documents and maps. As the Committee launches into its work, more information will be added to the site.

There was a lot of enthusiasm in the room during the Committee’s first meeting, and I’m optimistic it will be a productive and efficient forum to establish best practices that will improve safety and better protect the marine environment in the Aleutian Islands region.  

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St. Helena 2018: Shark! Fins on! Splash!

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After 3 hours of zigzag patterns without a single whale shark sighting, we being to think we may come up emptyhanded during our last day on the water in St. Helena. We have been here to undertake the first whole-island survey of ocean plastics, but today we are assisting Dr. Al Dove and his research team from Georgia Aquarium studying whale sharks. While we have been treated to hundreds of pantropical spotted dolphins feeding along the leeward coast of the Island as well as brown boobies and literally thousands of black and brown noddies aggregating in nesting pairs on Egg Island, it is the elusive whale shark that dominates our attention today.

Our hope continues to dwindle until radio chatter breaks the silence and suddenly Johnny, the Captain of the Enchanted Isle, opens up the boat’s throttle and we cut through small white caps to reach Sugarloaf, St. Helena’s northernmost point. A sailboat here has just spotted two whale sharks. And sure enough, as we spot the reported shark just off the Enchanted Isle’s bow, our enthusiasm sky rockets—only to be dashed once again. Before we can enter the water, the shark dives and disappears into the blue abyss. As another fish almost immediately comes into view, Al orders: “fins on, fins on! Go, go, go!”

At last, splash!

With snorkel and fins affixed, George and I jump off the Enchanted Isle’s port side into 300 feet (80 m) of rich blue, 72oF water. Visibility is exceptional, with rays of sun penetrating the depths of the oceanic waters. Out of the depths, a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) approximately 25 feet in length swims directly in front of us. Its body is a spectacular dark blue with its white spots illuminated by the sun’s rays.

© Nicholas Mallos

This magnificent animal is the largest fish in the ocean, often exceeding 30 feet in length and weighing as much 40,000 pounds. Despite its massive size, it is among the most docile creatures in the sea. That was clearly evident as this particular male stayed with us for nearly 30 minutes, providing us ample opportunity to capture all the required scientific information. The animal’s behavior was mesmerizing; its slow, meandering swimming pace exuded the utmost confidence, as the animal knew at any moment he could have disappeared into the deep with a single flick of his tail.

This particular fish has had a satellite tag affixed by Dr. Dove’s research team. Dr. Dove’s main objective for this 2018 Expedition was to build on his two previous expeditions (2015 and 2016), characterizing the movement and behavior of St. Helena’s whale sharks including how far these fish move throughout the Atlantic Ocean. Using these harmless tags will provide critical information about the animal’s movements between St. Helena and other parts of the Atlantic Ocean over the coming weeks and months, providing novel insights into the clandestine lives of these incredible creatures. Alexandra Watts, a PhD Candidate with the Ecological Genetics Lab at Manchester Metropolitan University and Marine Megafauna Foundation, has joined Dr. Dove’s team to apply cutting-edge genetic techniques to determine how closely-related whale shark populations are between St. Helena, the Galapagos, Indonesia and other parts of the global ocean. This information will help conservation managers aid in the protection of these threatened species.

The research team achieved all its objectives. Over the course of the three-week expedition, the team successfully engaged 47 whale sharks, started a critical educational exchange with St. Helena schools and learned from the Saint kids what it’s like to grow up with whale sharks on your doorstep!

Ocean Conservancy’s primary objective on this expedition was to better understand the potential effect of ocean plastics on St. Helena’s beaches, in its nearshore waters and on its marine wildlife. While we were in the water with whale sharks this day, a new paper was published by Elizta Germanov and colleagues (2018) highlighting the potential exposure of filter-feeding marine megafauna to microplastics and plastic-associated toxins. These scientists believe that species most at risk include mobulid rays (including the Chilean devil ray that we also encountered), filter-feeding sharks like whale and basking sharks, and baleen whales. This new paper highlights the urgent need to better understand the potential effects of microplastics on whale sharks in St. Helena waters (and beyond.)

As we climb back aboard the Enchanted Isle, the extended research team deliberates about the many new questions that have surfaced along with us. Ocean Conservancy is optimistic that Expedition St. Helena 2018 marks the beginning of our new partnership with Dr. Dove and his team, for there is much more important work to be done on plastics, whale sharks and the solutions needed to ensure healthy sharks—and healthy oceans—well into the future.

Stay tuned! Our next installment will cover what we have learned about plastics on St. Helena’s rugged beaches.

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Alaska Oil Spill Blues

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Devastating 3,000 Gallon Spill of Heavy Fuel Oil Near Kodiak

As of March 1, responders have still not been able to get to the site.

What I anticipated to be a glorious day—how could the day after International Polar Bear Day be anything but amazing—began on a sad note as news broke of a devastating spill of heavy fuel oil (HFO) near the southern end of Shuyak Island near Kodiak, Alaska.

On Monday morning, hurricane force winds destroyed a dock holding around 3,000 gallons of tar-like heavy fuel oil. Unfortunately, the spill occurred in designated critical habitat for the endangered northern sea otter and Steller sea lion. It is also home to abundant populations of waterfowl, seabirds, eagles, and a variety of fish species including pacific halibut, pacific cod, pacific herring and more.  Aerial pictures released by the U.S. Coast Guard show a slick of heavy fuel oil spreading on the surface of the ocean, undoubtedly impacted by the extreme currents in the area.

As you know, any oil spill is bad news for our ocean. A spill of heavy fuel oil? That is essentially the worst of the worst. Unlike marine diesel, this kind of fuel is extremely viscous, and breaks down very slowly in marine environments, particularly in colder regions. In a simulated spill scenario in Norway, distillate fuels nearly disappeared from the water surface after three days. Heavy fuel oil remained present more than five times longer.

Bad weather has prevented the U.S. Coast Guard’s response efforts (lead by Alaska Chadux) from arriving at the site. They will have a big challenge on their hands when they do get to Shuyak because there are still no response techniques that will ensure all the oil is removed from the marine environment.

These circumstances are significant because Shuyak is only 50 miles away from a U.S. Coast Guard base. And even with response assets so near, the response team can’t access the spill because of harsh weather. Can you imagine if there was a heavy fuel oil spill in a remote Arctic location under similarly challenging bad weather, with the addition of ice in the mix?

Remoteness, lack of effective response techniques and extremely limited response capacity would make a spill in the Arctic virtually impossible to clean up. For example, if a spill were to occur near Barrow, the nearest major port (Dutch Harbor) is 1,300 miles away by boat, while the nearest permanent USCG station (Kodiak) is a 950-mile flight away. Once responders arrive at the remote spill site (possibly days to weeks later), cleanup attempts may be hindered by intense storms, high waves and sea ice.

At present, around 75%  of marine fuel currently used in the Arctic is heavy fuel oil. For the past two years I have worked to phase out the use and carriage of this bottom of the barrel fuel in Arctic waters. As part of the Clean Arctic Alliance, Ocean Conservancy has also called on the International Maritime Organization to ban its use and carriage for use in the Arctic by 2020. Heavy fuel oil has already been banned in Antarctic waters.

While response teams brave the elements to get to this spill site, I am hoping that they will be able to recover at least some of the oil. It’s a sobering reminder that we need to keep calling for an Arctic free of heavy fuel oil.

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A Conversation with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

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A few months ago, I wrote a blog about searching for traces of Dr. Roger Arliner Young’s legacy on her alma mater, Howard University’s campus and coming up empty handed. Despite being the first African-American woman to earn her doctorate in zoology, her absence speaks volumes about equity, diversity and inclusion not only within the sciences, but society at large.

As a Roger Arliner Young Marine Conservation Diversity Fellow, I am privileged to have the opportunity to uphold her legacy. Her story is one of perseverance and grit, of overcoming impossible odds and the relentless pursuit of knowledge. For me, it continues to serve as a poignant reminder of all the concealed stories we have yet to uncover.

For this reason, it was an incredible opportunity to be able to speak with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a recognized and celebrated marine biologist and conservation strategist. It’s not every day that you get the chance to speak with such an inspiring woman of color, particularly as we celebrate Black History Month. Our conversation was illuminating and insightful. Here are some of the highlights:

Emi Okikawa:  What inspired you to pursue a career as a marine biologist/conservation strategist?

Dr. Johnson: Oh gosh. That’s either a really long answer or a really short one. The short answer is the ocean is amazing and I fell totally in love with it when I was a little kid and I saw a coral reef for the first time in the Florida Keys. I just remember holding a sea urchin in my hand and feeling all of its crazy tube feet. I have a soft spot for invertebrates.

The longer answer is that I care about coastal communities. I’m trained in the sciences but I’m not doing scientific research anymore. Instead, I’m using that background to think more about what it means to do ocean conservation through a social justice lens, taking care of coastal communities who are most threatened by overfishing, climate change, pollution, sea level rise and storms. I’m thinking through how we might achieve conservation goals while taking care of these folks—who are mostly poor people and people of color—who are at risk.

Ayana Johnson

Emi:  What were the pivotal moments in your academic/professional career that led you to where you are today?

Dr. Johnson: The first real moment was studying abroad in the Caribbean and evaluating a marine protected area to see if it was actually helping the community and the local fishermen. It was an opportunity to think about the socioeconomics of ocean conservation in a quantitative way. That solidified for me the idea that ocean conservation is a multidisciplinary, fascinating puzzle.

There was another big moment with the different movements that are burgeoning right now, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March, support for immigrants or Standing Rock. This last year has been a moment where you reevaluate what you’re spending your time on. We’ve been forced to consider big issues we care about and think about whether we’re making a difference through our work. And for me the outcome of that introspection was that I doubled down on approaching conservation through this lens of supporting at-risk communities.

Emi: What’s the biggest challenge that we face when integrating equity, diversity and inclusion into environmental NGOs or conservation organizations in general?

Dr. Johnson: I think that organizations are going to have to make a very deliberate effort. It definitely requires some thought and some strategy on the part of the organization, not just for recruitment, but thinking about how to create environments where people would actually be comfortable staying. It’s about retention too.

Emi:  Do you have any advice in amplifying your voice and message?

Dr. Johnson: Think about who might be interested who aren’t the usual suspects? How can you talk about the ocean in a broader context? It’s not just about the ocean. It’s not just about marine life—even though I’m madly in love with octopuses. It’s about connecting the dots and helping people to understand how ocean conservation is actually related to the issues they care about. We all need healthy oceans. We need to focus on building relationships with different organizations and individuals who have that overlapping intersectionality.

Emi: Finally, on a more optimistic note, what is something that gives you hope for the future?

Dr. Johnson: I feel like corporations are starting to step up and do more to reform their practices without regulation being required, which is great because there’s certainly not a lot of top down regulation happening in the U.S. right now. And we’re seeing a lot of corporations start to do their part because they’ve been pushed by NGOs. For example, Ocean Conservancy’s work on the Trash Free Seas Alliance® and pushing for plastic reduction. Those things give me hope.

Ayana Johnson

To learn more about Dr. Johnson’s work and perspectives:

  1. How to Use the Ocean Without Using it Up, TED talk
  2. 6 Lessons for Effective Science-based Ocean Conservation, National Geographic Blog
  3. Top 20 Ocean Conservation Wins of 2017, National Geographic blog
  4. The Shuri Effect: A Generation of Black Scientists?, Scientific American blog
  5. Find her on Twitter @ayanaeliza and Instagram @ayana.elizabeth

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Blue Planet II Recap: Coasts

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Most people interact with the oceans through the coasts. Beaches, from the white sands of the Florida Keys to rocky stretches of California coastline, are the windows to the expanse of the rest of the sea. In its 6th installment, BBC’s Blue Planet II focuses on the creatures and ecosystem that occupy this space between land and water. It explores the difficulties that come with living a life in flux, and the ingenious ways that animals have adapted to these circumstances.

Personally, this was probably my favorite episode yet, due in no small part to my love of the moon. The first part of “Coasts” focuses on the creatures that based their lives around the tides and features incredible footage of my favorite celestial body.

“As the moon circles our planet, the seas rise and fall… creating the most constantly dynamic landscapes on earth,” Attenborough explains.

© Blue Planet II/BBC

Indeed, the episode quickly shows just how dynamic these ecosystems can be. Time-lapse footage of a rock pool that seems like a haven of calm reveals the intensity of life in these enclaves. Starfish slowly suck up unsuspecting limpets. Anemones swallow shells whole. And moray eels, the one ocean creature that consistently haunts my nightmares, fight crabs that leap across the rocks.

© Blue Planet II/BBC

The tides create a life of surprising intensity, but no story in this episode is as intense as one of a little bird trying to feed his family. In “Coasts,” the puffin makes its Blue Planet II debut. I don’t know if there has ever been an animal more immediately charming than the puffin. They mate for life! They were the cutest part of the latest Star Wars! Their chicks are called PUFFLINGS! What could be more adorable?!

Not only are these puffins adorable, they’re also brave. Living in the crevasses of the towering cliffs created by wave erosion, the puffin must fly 50 kilometers into the open water to catch fish for its chicks. In one of the most memorable chase scenes yet, an arctic skua attempts to steal the fish right out of the father puffin’s mouth as he makes the long journey back to his nest. It’s a nail biter with real stakes: there’s a puffling at home that needs that fish. In the end, he makes it, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get emotional watching the family reunite.

© Blue Planet II/BBC

However, there’s a deeper threat to the puffins beyond the skua. Attenborough explains that in some places where fish numbers are in decline, many puffins find it hard to get enough food for their families. Though puffins are found primarily around Arctic waters, overfishing in all coastal areas can have an impact on their ability to find food. It’s vital to create sustainable fisheries all over the world so that creatures—and that includes us humans!—that live along the coasts can thrive.

The end of the episode takes viewers to the cities that now dominate many coasts. From the towering skyline of Manila to the shores of Palm Beach, it’s almost odd to see these human settlements after weeks of experiencing unfamiliar ocean terrains. And yet, it’s in cities like these that most people experience the ocean. In next week’s finale, Blue Planet II will explore the consequences of human actions on the ocean. Join Ocean Conservancy for a Facebook Live on February 28th as we host a special event with BBC America to celebrate Blue Planet II. We’ll discuss the series with BBC producer Mark Brownlow, founder of EarthEcho Philippe Cousteau, and Ocean Conservancy CEO Janis Searles Jones. Follow along with the hashtags #BluePlanet2 and #OurOcean.

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The Bering Strait Region: One Step Closer to Safer Shipping in the Arctic

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I’ve just returned to Alaska from a very successful meeting in London where the international community discussed important measures that mitigate potential safety and environmental risks of increasing vessel traffic in the Arctic. I’m excited to share with you that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will continue to work towards implementing two-way shipping routes and areas to be avoided (ATBAs) for the Bering Strait region. Both these measures will help safeguard this important region from the increased dangers posed by increased shipping.

The Bering Strait region

Located between Alaska and Russia, the Bering Strait is the only marine gateway between the icy Arctic and the Pacific Ocean. The northern Bering Sea region is central to the food security of many indigenous residents of Western Alaska, as its waters provide habitat for an astonishing abundance of fish, birds and marine mammals. At its narrowest point, the strait is only 53 miles wide. But as Arctic sea ice continues to melt at unprecedented rates, more and more ships are traveling through this region. With increasing ship traffic comes more noise and water pollution, and a higher risk of ship strikes on whales and damaging oil spills—including spills of toxic and long-lasting heavy fuel oil.

Two-way vessel traffic routes

Last week the IMO considered a joint U.S. and Russia proposal to establish two-way vessel traffic routes through the ecologically rich Bering Strait. While focused primarily on maritime safety, by encouraging ships to travel in known, well-charted regions significantly offshore, the designation of these routes also enhances environmental protection by reducing the risk of vessel incidents—incidents that may endanger lives, lead to devastating oil spills, or impact the subsistence way of life of local communities.

Areas to be avoided

Three ATBAs in the northern Bering Sea were also considered for approval. As the name implies, “Areas to be Avoided” are used to help ensure that vessels stay away from areas of the ocean that may be especially dangerous for navigation. These ATBAs warn vessels to steer clear of three islands in the region (St. Lawrence, Nunavik and King Island) that contain dangerous shoal waters on their coasts, are environmentally sensitive and are important to subsistence activities.


After speeches in support of the measures by the U.S., Russia, and Ocean Conservancy (as part of the Clean Shipping Coalition) and its non-governmental organizational partners, a group of experts reviewed the safety, navigation efficiency and environmental protection merits of the two-way routes and ATBAs. After careful consideration, the experts approved the requested measures, with a reduction in the size of the St. Lawrence ATBA.

The U.S. originally proposed an ATBA that would have both increased navigational safety and protected marine habitat in a large area south of St. Lawrence Island. Unfortunately, the IMO declined to include the greater extent of these southern waters when it approved the St. Lawrence Island ATBA. Despite the ecological importance of the area, some IMO members felt that it was inappropriate to designate such a large area in the absence of more direct concerns about navigation and ship safety.

Although the St. Lawrence Island ATBA could have been bigger, the subcommittee’s approval of three new ATBAs in the Bering Strait region is a major step forward. While the joint U.S. Russia proposal and the routing measures have not yet officially been adopted by the IMO, their consideration and approval at last week’s meeting were vital in ensuring their most likely final approval in May.

A bright outlook for the Bering Strait

I left London with a sense of accomplishment in knowing that the Bering Strait region is now a step closer to implementing ships routing measures that will better protect the safety of mariners, subsistence activities, and the marine environment of the Bering Strait region. Stay tuned for more information on the potential final approval of these measures in May 2018!

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What We Do (and Don’t) Know About the Arctic: A Deeper Look at a Remarkable Ecosystem

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By some accounts, the Arctic Ocean remains a largely blank area on the map. Yes, we have charted the contours of the seafloor, and, yes, we map the extent of its sea ice throughout the year. But what lies between the bottom and the top of the sea?

The recent international agreement to prevent unregulated fishing in the international waters of the Arctic Ocean is based, in part, on the fact that we know next to nothing about the fishes that live there. We don’t know how many there are, we don’t know much about their life cycle, we don’t know how they use different habitats. We certainly don’t know how all that will change as sea ice continues to retreat and the waters continue to warm.

That being said, we know far more than we used to about the Arctic. In ancient times and through the Victorian Era, a persistent geographic fantasy placed a lush, ice-free oasis around the North Pole, past the barrier of ice and snow that explorers encountered when heading north. The long, spiral tusk of the narwhal, an Arctic icon today, was mistaken by medieval European courts as evidence for the existence of unicorns.

Today, we recognize the Arctic for its role in regulating the Earth’s climate. Arctic and subarctic seas provide over a tenth of the world’s fish catches. Arctic marine mammals are known throughout the world for what they actually are, not how they fit into ancient myths. And there is increasing awareness surrounding Arctic cultures, taking them on their own terms, rather than as exemplars of human development. Indeed, the rest of the world is slowly catching up with the depth of understanding and appreciation by which Inuit, Saami, Chukchi and others have thrived in places where most of us would be hard pressed to last a day.

Becca Robbins GisclairBecca Robbins Gisclair
© Becca Robbins Gisclair

Perhaps the question of what we know is less an abstract reckoning of accumulated facts, and more a matter of whether we are able to make good decisions. A hunter going out onto the sea ice needs to be able to recognize danger and to identify promising places to find prey. The harsh reality is that hunters who made poor decisions did not return. That risk remains for many Arctic coastal residents. And new risks have been added, as industrial activity reaches farther and farther north.

How might shipping disturb or damage Arctic ecosystems? What can be done to reduce the effects of offshore oil and gas activity? These are the types of questions we need to be able to answer if we are going to conserve the Arctic, especially at a time of increasing stress from climate change. We will never know enough to provide definitive answers. We will continue to work in uncertainty, with gaps in understanding, in the expectation that surprises await.

With that in mind, caution is essential. Acting in the absence of knowledge is no different than running with a blindfold on, hoping for the best despite ample prior experience to the contrary. The burden should not be to prove that human actions will cause harm, but instead to demonstrate why those actions are not likely to damage Arctic ecosystems and affect those who depend on them. Adequate knowledge is that which allows us a realistic appraisal of the risks our actions entail, so that we can make informed decisions.

This is not to say that nothing can be done in the Arctic. Such a stance is unrealistic and also contrary to the needs of Arctic residents, who need work and income just like the rest of us. Instead, the Arctic should be home to a knowledge economy and a knowledge environment, in the sense that we should invest in learning what we can. In that way, we can identify opportunities that arise and avoid long-term harm caused by myopic pursuit of short-term gain.

The bowhead whale is the longest-lived mammal on the planet and has provided sustenance for Iñupiaq and Yupik whalers in Alaska for centuries. In the latter half of the 19th century, the bowhead was nearly wiped out in the quest for whale oil and baleen, or “whalebone.” Profits were high but fleeting. Commercial whalers willingly turned a blind eye to the increasing scarcity of the whales. Fortunately, the market for whale products collapsed before the whales did.

NGS Picture ID:1273596NGS Picture ID:1273596
© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Creative

Today, the bowhead population in Alaska continues to rise, continuing to provide nourishment. Several decades of intensive scientific research, conducted in partnership with the Iñupiaq and Yupik whalers, has made the bowhead one of the best understood whales on Earth, despite living year-round in remote, icy waters. This is what we know how to do in the Arctic and should be our inspiration and our standard for what we do next.

Henry Huntington, the Arctic Science Director for Ocean Conservancy, expands on the topic of this blog in this recent article in the journal Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development.

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Q & A with Environmental Journalist Mona Samari

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The Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland, Oregon, had a strong focus on science and communication. While I was there, I spoke with someone whose work relies on both. Mona Samari is an investigative journalist from Tunisia who works on ocean issues. Samari answered several questions about what motivates her.

What do you currently do? How is your work connected to ocean questions?

I currently run a small project called the West African Fisheries and Ocean Science Journalism Training Program. I developed it with Internews Europe and the Earth Journalism Network, and it received funding support from the Adessium Foundation. It aims to empower West African environmental journalists to expertly address overfishing by giving them the necessary tools—through story grants, training materials workshops and mentorship—to cover these issues through various prisms, including its socio-economic impact on coastal communities.

We work to facilitate knowledge transfer between ocean scientists and environmental journalists in the countries we are building partnerships with. We like to include ocean scientists into the workshops we hold for journalists—for example, in Ghana, we had a local scientist accompany one of the groups to help identify juvenile catches. He provided the journalists with local contacts within the fishing community that they were able to interview.

In a way, the role of journalists is to make the information provided by scientists more accessible for the general public—ocean journalists can play a key role in helping to “translate” science language into everyday language that people can understand. But first, they have to grasp it themselves, which is why we are running these programs.

Ocean stories are a hard sell for news editors. There tends to be a lack of appeal around a fisheries story—so as part of the program, we provide small grants for fisheries stories. This enables journalists to show their editors that an ocean story can be compelling, with a strong human angle. We have some great investigative stories in the pipeline—including looking at the impact of fishmeal production on small pelagic [fish], transhipment issues, fishing licenses and other key issues affecting the region. We always encourage our journalists to capture the human stories of ocean degradation effects—on families, on whole fishing communities and even on other evolving issues happening in conjunction with overfishing, such as an increase in human trafficking within certain fishing communities. West Africa is a hotbed of talent—I am always inspired and humbled by what the journalists propose despite some of the difficult conditions they work in.

Some of the ocean stories produced thus far can be accessed here:

How did you get interested in ocean issues?

Apart from the fact that I have always loved the ocean, from a career perspective, I was working in the human rights sector for over ten years and wanted a change. My first ocean project was working as part of the Shark Alliance back in 2007 and ever since then, I worked as part of a number of ocean coalition teams. After attending the Rio Summit in 2012, and with the Tunisian revolution having opened up the country to new possibilities, I saw that ocean and environment issues were going to become increasingly side-lined in the Arab world. This inspired me to apply for a small grant with the Earth Journalism Network to set up a network of environment and ocean journalists in Tunisia. This was the beginning of my really trying to fill in the gap between the ocean and media communities, with the need for increasing transparency of ocean issues through media coverage as a bridge to improve governance.

You operate in very different environments—from coastal West Africa to London. How do you connect these different contexts?

The poet Keats once used the term “negative capability” to describe the ability to be in uncertainties. Most of my work is done on the field and so I have learnt to adapt quickly to different environments. Maintaining inner balance and strengthening the inner core—your inner grit as my yoga teacher would call it—is what allows one to be able to operate in different and unpredictable contexts more effectively. That, and not taking yourself too seriously and enjoying what you do.

What advice do you have for young people, especially those from underrepresented communities, working in the science-policy world?

Use your unique background and your ability to grasp the complex and overlapping issues within your communities as an advantage. If you identify a gap that nobody else is addressing, create a project with other partners willing to support you and apply for a small grant to get it off the ground. Being able to speak a different language—especially a UN language—is also a huge advantage.

Also, it is hugely important to gain experience of working effectively within a team. It is no use being brilliant at what you do if nobody wants to work with you! Always find good mentors who are willing to give you honest feedback and good opportunities for development and keep them updated on your progress or share any key milestones you have achieved with them.

People never mention that youth and lack of work experience can also be a huge disadvantage, perhaps bigger than race, gender or ethnic background—and also when combined with these, as employers are always favouring those with experience—so it is very important to gain field experience at any opportunity and add this early on in your career, and to always incorporate as much work experience as you can.

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