© Hugi Olafsson

A step towards stronger and better coordination on marine topics

When the Arctic Council’s new marine cooperation initiative, the Senior Arctic Officials’ (SAO) based Marine Mechanism (SMM), was launched in September 2020, the Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials, Ambassador Einar Gunnarsson, outlined the main ambitions for the meeting series. The goal, he said, was to bring together marine experts in a variety of fields, to discuss among themselves, and with SAOs and Permanent Participants, how the Council and its cooperation partners could jointly pave a way forward on some of the Arctic’s most pressing marine-related issues. The initial meeting series of the Marine Mechanism concluded last week and we followed up with Ambassador Gunnarsson.
Senior Arctic Officials and Permanent Participants attending the SMM webinar series

After attending the SMM webinar series and hearing from many of the marine experts and knowledge holders, what expertise, would you say, does the Arctic Council hold in regard to marine issues?

One should probably first mention the Council’s Working Group for the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), which has a reference to its expertise on the Arctic marine environment in its name. However, when we were preparing the Senior Arctic Officials based Marine Mechanism (SMM), we asked all six Working Groups to take a look at their ongoing projects to see if and how these were related to the Arctic marine environment. And, it was interesting to see that more than half of the projects turned out to be either directly or indirectly related to marine issues. As the Arctic Council is dealing in knowledge and science, this probably makes it the strongest body that encompasses this level of knowledge on the Arctic marine environment, and the only one with a circumpolar focus.

What were some of the learnings from this first SMM meeting series?

What struck me most as I was following this meeting series, was the repeated call for a stronger and better coordination of the work the Arctic Council undertakes with regard to the Arctic marine environment – something that we already took note of in the reports of the Task Force on Arctic Marine Cooperation 2017 and 2019. This call for coordination may derive from the fact that there are so many good initiatives within the Council that are in one way or another related to the Arctic marine environment. While the Council’s setup can be a blessing at times, it can in other instances give the impression of placing barriers between those that should be working together. However, having said that, I take the opportunity to note that the Working Groups have increased their cooperation and coordination in recent years and that is an accomplishment that should be applauded.

Can the SMM provide the additional means of cooperation being called for or is another setup needed?

One initial idea that the Task Force on Arctic Marine Cooperation discussed, was to set up additional structures. Yet, it was decided not to follow that path but rather to recommend establishing the SMM. Many participants in the wrap-up webinar expressed an appreciation for the SMM and have raised calls for it to continue, and to address the coordination needs that have been identified.

Although I don’t see a particular need for a new structure, there is one topic that may require us to think outside of the box and that is Arctic marine shipping. Discussions during the webinar series identified the need to not only work within the regular government structures but in cooperation with representatives of the Arctic shipping industry. Some have proposed a joint Task Force with the Arctic Economic Council; which would follow a different format from previous Arctic Council Task Forces. That is the one area where I could see calls for creative structures in order to address particular topics.

After the webinar series, what would you say are the Council’s strengths in regard to marine issues and where might it need additional efforts?

People praise the strong work of the Arctic Council on the project level, which is mainly focused on knowledge and science. Rightly so, I might add, but we shouldn’t forget that there have been policy oriented efforts made within the Council’s Working Groups related to the Arctic marine environment, that have resulted in concrete recommendations. The criticism is directed at the lack of follow up and implementation of these recommendations. In terms of additional efforts to address this shortcoming, we might explore the possibility of introducing a stronger follow up and implementation process into the workings of the Arctic Council. One could possibly think of some kind of voluntary national reporting; keeping in mind that there are limitations to what the Arctic Council can accomplish with meetings being few and far between.

Who are key cooperation partners for the Council to enhance marine coordination with, in the Arctic Ocean?

When we talk about cooperation partners in the Arctic, it is only natural that we first look at the Council’s Observer States and Organizations. I dare say – and I will do so from an Icelandic perspective – that there are two organizations that might be most interesting when looking for marine cooperation partners and that is the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and its sister organization, the North Pacific Marine Science Organization (PICES). These organizations have a longstanding history of working in Arctic waters with a scientific basis and, in the case of ICES, all the Arctic States are members of the organization. We are already seeing a fruitful cooperation between PAME, ICES and PICES.

Will the Council follow up on this first SMM meeting series, and if so, how will the format be continued?

Let me first say that I was happy to see the positive reception of the action points that were put forward by the moderators, Senior Arctic Officials and Permanent Participants in the closing session. That in itself speaks volumes about the capacity within the Arctic Council family to respond in very meaningful ways.

When it comes to follow up of this first meeting series, a lot will depend on upcoming Chairmanships – the Russian Federation being the next in line. From the perspective of the Icelandic Chairmanship, we are convinced that the online format we adopted (by courtesy of COVID-19) could provide a very valuable tool to advance work on marine affairs within the Arctic Council. And, I am optimistic that the virtual format may provide us with better opportunities to make it possible to incorporate the Marine Mechanism into the Council’s general workplan. The TFAMC recommended that the SMM be an annual gathering, and I will admit that I initially had doubts that we would be able to fit it into the already packed schedule of Senior Arctic Officials and Permanent Participants. But, with this additional tool of organizing online sessions at our convenience, I think it is much more viable to make the Marine Mechanism an annual event.

Lastly, the Chairmanship only decided to go down this virtual route late this summer, when it became apparent that we would not be able to gather in person this fall. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who contributed to the SMM series on such short notice: the keynote speakers, the expert presenters, the Senior Arctic Officials, Permanent Participants, Working Groups, and Observes, not forgetting the Arctic Council Secretariat, and our interpreters and all the other delegates who joined the experiment and made this new meeting series a success.

Cover image by Hugi Ólafsson (c)