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The Icelandic Chairmanship put a focus on marine litter in the Arctic. One of the most anticipated outcomes is the Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Arctic, which will be released at the upcoming Ministerial meeting in May. The Senior Arctic Officials have already approved the Plan for submission to the Ministers, so we asked Elizabeth McLanahan, PAME Vice-chair and one of the lead authors of the Action Plan, for a sneak peek.

How was the development of the Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Arctic initiated?

The initiation of the Regional Action Plan goes back almost four years in time, when the Arctic States started to draw attention to the fact that marine litter is not only a global issue but also an issue within the Arctic. At that time, we did not have enough information to fully understand what was going on in the Arctic. We therefore decided to start with a desktop study, which collected all the available information on marine litter in the Arctic and consolidated it into a concise document. We wanted to understand how much marine litter was in the Arctic environment, where it was coming from, what sectors were contributing to the problem, etc. While we didn’t have complete information on a number of these issues, the desktop study clearly showed that marine litter was an issue in the Arctic and that we needed to act now. Then, over the last two years, we have worked on developing the Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Arctic.

What is the overall objective of the Action Plan?

We have an official objective in the document and that is: ‘support Arctic States’ efforts to reduce marine litter in the Arctic marine environment, prevent the potential negative impacts and mitigate the risks it may pose, and to improve cooperation on and awareness of this shared objective.’

What was the process to develop the Action Plan?

It was actually a very interesting process. Seven of the eight Arctic States and one of the Permanent Participant Organizations volunteered to co-lead the project. We started off by hiring a consultant to look at other regional action plans on marine litter and their actions as a starting point. When we had a compilation of potential actions and ways to organize an action plan, we presented this at an expert workshop to solicit feedback and views on how we could make this more Arctic-specific.

At this point, the co-leads took charge of the project and revised the different actions and the document as a whole based on initial feedback received. We also conducted additional workshops and consultations, and circulated the document to the Council’s Working Groups and Observers multiple times to solicit their feedback. Then, during more than 70 sessions over several months, the project leads dove into the details and tried to hammer out what the document and the strategic actions would look like.

Since, the Arctic Council is consensus-based, you can see that the actions are representative of all the States, of what they support and confirm to do. So, I think it is very encouraging that – although it took a lot of time – we got to a place where everyone stands behind the plan and is excited to implement it.

Marine debris in the nesting site of Northern gannets (Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute/J. Huelskoetter)

How many people were involved in developing this plan?

We had very active participation from Observers and Arctic experts, joining workshops with 40 to 65 people. As for the lead countries, I can speak for the United States. We had a handful of people working on a day-to-day basis with the plan and negotiating sessions, but we had a team of about 20 people that were providing technical input to the actual document. So, I’d imagine that the number of people engaged in developing the plan is probably in the hundreds.

Which role will the Action Plan play in demonstrating Arctic States’ stewardship efforts toward reducing the negative impacts of marine litter?

The thing that’s really interesting about the Regional Action Plan is that it’s geared towards different levels. For some of the actions, the individual States can implement locally or nationally, working with local jurisdictions and authorities that manage different aspects of marine litter. Whereas other actions are collective, where we envision the Arctic States will be working together on specific activities. So, it affects the stewardship on multiple levels and different stages of the stewardship cycle – for example at the planning level (siting landfills) to the management level (promoting marking of fishing gear). The Action Plan also includes many different sectoral areas from shipping to fishing, so you can look at the stewardship actions across those different sectors.

Could you give us a sneak peek: What will be included in the Action Plan?

The primary sections of the plan include a summary of the regional and international efforts that are currently taking place as well as a summary on environmental monitoring, which draws on the efforts of two other Working Groups: the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP). The strategic actions of the plan account for a large portion of the document. The 59 strategic actions are categorized in eight thematic areas and there’s the opportunity to revise the strategic actions over time based on new information and research. The sectoral themes of the Action Plan are fisheries, shipping, aquaculture and waste-water management but other themes also include sustainable materials management, cleaning up Arctic coasts, strengthening monitoring and research, conducting outreach and cooperating internationally. And finally, there’s a section on implementation.

Could you give us one example of a strategic action outlined in the plan?

A number of actions focus on the shipping sector. Ship traffic in the Arctic has increased by 25 percent from 2013 to 2019. So, there’s a need for reception facilities to receive that waste to avoid intentional or accidental discharge into the ocean. Given the significance of this potentially large contribution to marine litter, one action that I particularly appreciate is ‘to assess the waste generated by ships and offshore structures and to identify gaps and opportunities to collect, sort, dispose and recycle waste at marinas, ports and harbors in the Arctic, taking into account local waste management facilities, their capacities and practices’.

Additionally, to illustrate the breadth of strategic actions, I can also mention we have actions related to identifying landfills and open dumpsites that are near Arctic coastal areas and waterways in order to look at potential leakages. Lastly, I want to highlight, that we are trying to take outreach and working with local communities into account to foster knowledge and understanding. There’s another action that I particularly like, which is to ‘support and collaborate with youth organizations to facilitate an intergenerational dialogue on marine litter and to encourage positive action’.

Iceland hosted an International Symposium on Plastics in the Arctic

Which geographical scope does the plan cover?

The Action Plan applies to all Arctic marine areas identified by the Arctic States, including coastal zones, river basins and other areas that are connected to the marine environment. The reason why we landed on this definition is that each Arctic State within the Arctic Council gets to define its Arctic areas, so we wanted that flexibility. Secondly, setting a focus on coastal zones and river basins is an effort to get the whole watershed perspective, and not just to look at litter when it’s already in the marine environment.

How will the Arctic Council follow up on the implementation of the Action Plan?

Although we have the Regional Action Plan, we want to make sure that we put activities into place that are going to foster its implementation. Consequently, PAME, in consultation with the other Working Groups, is developing an implementation plan over the next two years that will outline some specific activities that can be taken for each of the Strategic Actions. Once we have this implementation plan, we are going to be able to look at which activities have been implemented, to identify where we have been able to conduct work or maybe areas or places where we haven’t been as active. This will allow us to steer our work as well as consider how we may wish to revise the strategic actions every four years.

However, we did not want to slow down the process of implementing the strategic actions immediately, therefore, concurrent with development of the implementation plan, we have initiated projects for this upcoming biennium: one is led by Norway and focuses on Arctic coastal clean-ups; and another project is led by the United States and Norway and is trying to enhance our understanding of abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear by looking at current fishing areas and developing an inventory.

To what extent do you think, the Action Plan could serve as a role model for other regions of the world?

I definitely think it can serve as a role model in a similar way that we looked at other regions with plans – from the Caribbean to the Baltic Sea to the Northeast Atlantic. I would say as other regions develop new plans or revise their existing ones, they can look at our plan and see its breadth and scope and the types of actions we employ. They could also be interested in the monitoring plans and guidelines that were developed by AMAP. In addition, I hope other regions might learn from our process, which I believe was very inclusive in terms of engaging other Working Groups, Permanent Participants and other stakeholders to include their input.

How does the Action Plan feed into existing international activities tackling marine litter?

Some of the actions draw directly from international treaties and organizations, such as the International Maritime Organization and MARPOL, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. So, it speaks to how we can link to their existing work and those bodies and bring relevant aspects back to the Arctic. Cooperation is important, and recognizing that some of the marine litter is coming from outside the Arctic makes cooperation with other states or organizations outside the region indispensable to our efforts.