Report for Policy Makers
Arctic biodiversity is an irreplaceable cultural, scientific, ecological, economic and spiritual asset
In addition to its intrinsic worth, Arctic biodiversity provides innumerable services and values to people. Arctic habitats are home to species with remarkable adaptations to survive in extreme cold and highly variable climatic conditions. Millions of migratory birds breed in the Arctic and then fly to every continent on Earth, contributing to global biodiversity and ecological health. More than a tenth of the world’s fish catches by weight come from Arctic and sub-Arctic seas. Tourists are travelling north in increasing numbers, and globally there is a growing appreciation of Arctic species and ecosystems as increasingly rare examples of largely pristine biodiversity.
The Arctic is home to more than 21,000 known species of highly cold-adapted mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, plants and fungi including lichens, as well as tens of thousands of microbe species. These include iconic species such as polar bear, muskox, bowhead whale, narwhal, walrus, caribou, Arctic char, ivory gull, Arctic fox and snowy owl as well as thousands of lesser known species. In addition to species themselves, the Arctic also harbors a diversity of marine, freshwater and terrestrial habitats, such as vast expanses of lowland tundra, wetlands, mountains, extensive shallow ocean shelves, millennia-old ice shelves, pack ice and huge seabird coastal cliffs.
Nature feeds me. It helps me. I can speak with the grass, bushes and water - I can speak with all things. I am connected to all things.
Dmitrii Nikolayevich Begunov, Cherskii, Russia
Among those who live in the Arctic are dozens of distinct indigenous peoples who call the Arctic home. Their ways of life demonstrate the vitality of language and traditional knowledge, key aspects of the human relationship with biodiversity. Arctic cultures have been more reliant on hunting and fishing than those in almost any other part of the world because of the limited availability of edible wild plants. Some species, such as bears and whales, have great spiritual importance in Arctic cultures, and harvest of wildlife is deeply rooted in the self-perception of Arctic peoples. Traditional foods currently account for a smaller portion of indigenous diets than in the past, but biodiversity and a healthy natural environment remain integral to the well-being of Arctic inhabitants. They provide not only food, but the everyday context and basis for social identity, cultural survival and spiritual life.
Geographically, the Arctic is made up of the world’s smallest ocean and neighboring seas, surrounded by a relatively narrow fringe of island and continental tundra, much of it underlain by permafrost. Freshwater habitats range from shallow tundra ponds fed by small streams to large deep lakes and rivers. Arctic land and freshwater areas are generally low in productivity and species richness, though there are exceptions. For example, the number of plant and lichen species in some tundra areas is as high as in the richest grasslands of temperate and subtropical regions. For the ocean, sea ice is the defining feature of the Arctic. Unlike Arctic terrestrial and freshwater habitats, marine ecosystems on some Arctic shelves are among the most productive on Earth. The sea ice itself provides important habitat for many species and is vital to the Arctic marine food web. Arctic marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems are interconnected physically and biologically.
Extremes of cold and seasonality and limited accessibility have kept human influence low, allowing ecological processes to function largely undisturbed. But climate change and an increasing demand for Arctic resources are driving a new era of human activity with subsequent likely consequences for Arctic biodiversity. Sustainable societies need a sustainable environment, but we can no longer take Arctic environmental well-being for granted.
The 'master plan' is that our purpose is to hunt marine mammals, but that we should not take that for granted. This is why conservation is so important in our culture.
George Noongwook, Savoonga, U.S.A.
We have a unique and urgent opportunity in the Arctic to conserve large, undisturbed ecosystems and the species and cultures they support. Doing so will help protect the integrity of Arctic biodiversity and the sustainability of Arctic communities. The future of the Arctic and its biodiversity requires an active and decisive approach to conservation and sustainability.
Key finding 1: Arctic biodiversity is being degraded, but decisive action taken now can help sustain vast, relatively undisturbed ecosystems of tundra, mountains, fresh water and seas and the valuable services they provide.
Key finding 8: Current knowledge of many Arctic species, ecosystems and their stressors is fragmentary, making detection and assessment of trends and their implications difficult for many aspects of Arctic biodiversity.
The following recommendations are aimed primarily at the Arctic Council, its member states and Permanent Participants. Success in conserving Arctic biodiversity, however, also depends upon actions by non-Arctic states, regional and local authorities, industry and all who live, work and travel in the Arctic. These recommendations may, therefore, also provide a guide for action for states, authorities, and organizations beyond the Arctic Council. Some of the ABA recommendations directly encourage cooperation with those outside the Arctic Council process.
Large tracts of the Arctic remain relatively undisturbed providing an opportunity for proactive action that can minimize or even prevent future problems that would be costly, or impossible, to reverse. The key findings of the ABA are interrelated and responding to them would benefit from a holistic approach. When taken together, three cross-cutting themes are evident:
- the significance of climate change as the most serious underlying driver of overall change in biodiversity;
- the necessity of taking an ecosystem-based approach to management; and
- the importance of mainstreaming biodiversity by making it integral to other policy fields, for instance by ensuring biodiversity objectives are considered in development standards, plans and operations.
A comprehensive and integrated approach is needed to address the interconnected and complex challenges facing biodiversity and to ensure informed policy decisions in a changing Arctic. In addition to many Arctic Council initiatives underway, there are other conventions and processes addressing these cross-cutting themes and many of the individual stressors acting on biodiversity. This includes many regulatory and non-regulatory measures that are in place or under development to provide consistent standards and/or approaches to development in the Arctic. Many of these can, or do, provide safeguards for biodiversity.
Care was taken in the development of the ABA recommendations to review recommendations from other major Arctic Council initiatives. Many of the recommendations overlap and are mutually supportive, emphasizing the importance of considering all recommendations together. Some of the ABA recommendations reinforce the significance to biodiversity of recommendations or actions already underway, others build upon existing recommendations or processes, and others are more specifically focused on biodiversity issues. All are important to ensure the conservation of Arctic species, ecosystems and the services they provide.
1. Actively support international efforts addressing climate change, both reducing stressors and implementing adaptation measures, as an urgent matter. Of specific importance are efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to reduce emissions of black carbon, methane and tropospheric ozone precursors.
2. Incorporate resilience and adaptation of biodiversity to climate change into plans for development in the Arctic.
3. Advance and advocate ecosystem-based management efforts in the Arctic as a framework for cooperation, planning and development. This includes an approach todevelopment that proceeds cautiously, with sound short and long-term environmental risk assessment and management, using the best available scientific and traditional ecological knowledge, following the best environmental practices, considering cumulative effects and adhering to international standards.
4. Require the incorporation of biodiversity objectives and provisions into all Arctic Council work and encourage the same for on-going and future international standards, agreements, plans, operations and/or other tools specific to development in the Arctic. This should include, but not be restricted to, oil and gas development, shipping, fishing, tourism and mining.
5. Advance the protection of large areas of ecologically important marine, terrestrial and freshwater habitats, taking into account ecological resilience in a changing climate.
a. Build upon existing and on-going domestic and international processes to complete the identification of ecologically and biologically important marine areas and implement appropriate measures for their conservation.
b. Build upon existing networks of terrestrial protected areas, filling geographic gaps, including under-represented areas, rare or unique habitats, particularly productive areas such as large river deltas, biodiversity hotspots, and areas with large aggregations of animals such as bird breeding colonies, seal whelping areas and caribou calving grounds.
c. Promote the active involvement of indigenous peoples in the management and sustainable use of protected areas.
6. Develop guidelines and implement appropriate spatial and temporal measures where necessary to reduce human disturbance to areas critical for sensitive life stages of Arctic species that are outside protected areas, for example along transportation corridors. Such areas include calving grounds, den sites, feeding grounds, migration routes and moulting areas. This also means safeguarding important habitats such as wetlands and polynyas.
7. Develop and implement mechanisms that best safeguard Arctic biodiversity under changing environmental conditions, such as loss of sea ice, glaciers and permafrost.
a. Safeguard areas in the northern parts of the Arctic where high Arctic species have a relatively greater chance to survive for climatic or geographical reasons, such as certain islands and mountainous areas, which can act as a refuge for unique biodiversity.
b. Maintain functional connectivity within and between protected areas in order to protect ecosystem resilience and facilitate adaptation to climate change.
8. Reduce stressors on migratory species range-wide, including habitat degradation and overharvesting on wintering and staging areas and along flyways and other migration routes.
a. Pursue or strengthen formal migratory bird cooperation agreements and other specific actions on a flyway level between Arctic and non-Arctic states with first priority given to the East Asian flyway.
b. Collaborate with relevant international commissions, conventions, networks and other organizations sharing an interest in the conservation of Arctic migratory species to identify and implement appropriate conservation actions.
c. Develop and implement joint management and recovery plans for threatened species with relevant non-Arctic states and entities.
d. Identify and advance the conservation of key wintering
and staging habitats for migratory birds, particularly wetlands.
9. Reduce the threat of invasive alien/non-native species to the Arctic by developing and implementing common measures for early detection and reporting, identifying and blocking pathways of introduction, and sharing best practices and techniques for monitoring, eradication and control. This includes supporting international efforts currently underway, for example those of the International Maritime Organization to effectively treat ballast water to clean and treat ship hulls and drilling rigs.
10. Promote the sustainable management of the Arctic’s living resources and their habitat.
a. Improve circumpolar cooperation in data gathering and assessment of populations and harvest and in the development of improved harvest methods, planning, and management. This includes improving the use and integration of traditional ecological knowledge and science in managing harvests and in improving the development and use of community-based monitoring as an important information source.
b. Develop pan-Arctic conservation and management plans for shared species that are, or will potentially be, harvested or commercially exploited that incorporate common monitoring objectives, population assessments, harvesting regimes, guidelines for best practices in harvest methodology and consider maintenance of genetic viability and adaptation to climate change as guiding principles.
c. Support efforts to plan and manage commercial fisheries in international waters under common international objectives that ensure long-term sustainability of species and ecosystems. Encourage precautionary, science-based management of fisheries in areas beyond national jurisdiction in accordance with international law to ensure the long-term sustainability of species and ecosystems.
d. Support efforts to develop, improve and employ fishing technologies and practices that reduce by-catch of marine mammals, seabirds and non-target fish and avoid significant adverse impact to the seabed.
e. Develop and implement, in cooperation with reindeer herders, management plans that ensure the sustainability of reindeer herding and the quality of habitat for grazing and calving.
11. Reduce the threat of pollutants to Arctic biodiversity.
a. Support and enhance international efforts and cooperation to identify, assess and reduce existing and emerging harmful contaminants.
b. Support the development of appropriate prevention and clean up measures and technologies that are responsive to oil spills in the Arctic, especially in ice-filled waters, such that they are ready for implementation in advance of major oil and gas developments.
c. Encourage local and national action to implement best practices for local wastes, enhance efforts to clean-up legacy contaminated sites and include contaminant reduction and reclamation plans in development projects.
12. Evaluate the range of services provided by Arctic biodiversity in order to determine the costs associated with biodiversity loss and the value of effective conservation in order to assess change and support improved decision making.
13. Increase and focus inventory, long-term monitoring and research efforts to address key gaps in scientific knowledge identified in this assessment to better facilitate the development and implementation of conservation and management strategies. Areas of particular concern identified through the ABA include components critical to ecosystem functions including important characteristics of invertebrates, microbes, parasites and pathogens.
14. Recognize the value of traditional ecological knowledge and work to further integrate it into the assessment, planning and management of Arctic biodiversity. This includes involving Arctic peoples and their knowledge in the survey, monitoring and analysis of Arctic biodiversity.
15. Promote public training, education and community-based monitoring, where appropriate, as integral elements in conservation and management.
16. Research and monitor individual and cumulative effects of stressors and drivers of relevance to biodiversity, with a focus on stressors that are expected to have rapid and significant impacts and issues where knowledge is lacking. This should include, but not be limited to, modeling potential future species range changes as a result of these stressors; developing knowledge of and identifying tipping points, thresholds and cumulative effects for Arctic biodiversity; and developing robust quantitative indicators for stressors through the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program.
17. Develop communication and outreach tools and methodologies to better convey the importance and value of Arctic biodiversity and the changes it is undergoing.