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Arctic shipping activity and coastal marine biodiversity

This article, which is focused on shipping activity and coastal marine biodiversity in the Arctic, is part of a series highlighting issues from the CAFF's landmark Arctic Biodiversity Assessment.

Due to the decrease in multi-year ice, the Arctic has experienced a longer open water season, an increase in vessel activity, and the opening up of new shipping routes. These changes have brought many new opportunities for tourism and coastal offshore marine activities.

The coastal waters where most shipping activity occurs are also areas of high biodiversity, which makes them more susceptible to impacts from shipping activities. There is a broad geographical correspondence between the routes used by marine mammals (bowhead, beluga, narwhal, walrus) during their spring migration to summer feeding grounds in the Arctic, and Arctic shipping routes. At present, most shipping movements take place after the mammals have moved through these migration areas.

With less sea ice, there may be a longer season of navigation with the potential for more conflicts between migratory species and ships. Key sensitivities of Arctic marine ecosystems to vessel activities include the presence and role of sea ice and the importance of Arctic shelves as migration routes, and feeding and nursery areas for anadromous fish, marine birds and mammals.

Although no major accidents have yet occurred in Arctic waters, there have been a number of smaller incidents in the region. As this graphic illustrates, the majority of shipping incidents have taken place in coastal waters, largely because the majority of vessel activity is concentrated there. The various colored dots show the nature of these incidents in the Arctic, with the majority due to machinery damage/failure or other damage to the vessel. Collisions are relatively rare.

“Safe Arctic Shipping” is one of the Arctic Council’s areas of focus during Canada’s Chairmanship (2013-2015). The Arctic Council has undertaken a variety of activities to ensure that Arctic shipping is done in a safe and sustainable manner.

The Protection of the Artic Marine Environment (PAME) working group has undertaken a number of activities to promote safe Arctic shipping over the years, including the comprehensive Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment.

Click here to see more from the “Marine Ecosystems” chapter of the ABA.

For more biodiversity graphics, please visit the Arctic Biodiversity Data Service.