[Show/Hide Left Column]


Arctic Ecosystems and the Impact by Shipping Activities

(by Karl Magnus Eger)


Black carbon (BC) is a component of particulate matter (PM) and is produced by marine vessels through the incomplete oxidation of diesel fuel. International shipping emits between 71 000 and 160 000 metric tons of BC annually, representing about 15% of total PM from ships and about 2% of global BC from all sources. In the Arctic region in 2004, approx. 609 tons of black carbon was released. Although this is a relatively low amount as compared to global emissions, as shipping traffic increases in the Arctic, the region specific effects of BC described above means that even small amounts could have potentially a disproportionate impact on ice melt and warming of the region. More research is needed to determine how mitigation benefits may be associated with BC reductions from ships in sensitive regions. However, the AMSA study found that the heaviest CO2 and1  BC emissions were found in the Bering Sea region, around Iceland, along the Norwegian coast and in the Barents Sea. There are also moderate emissions along the western coast of Greenland. However, effective reduction of ship emissions can be achieved through the application of feasible and best available technologies, through air emission techniques and, most importantly, through effective implementation of relevant IMO regulations1 .

An ecosystem is a natural unit consisting of all plants, animals and micro-organisms in an area functioning together with all of the physical factors of the environment. In these systems organisms are interdependent which means they are sharing the same habitat. Central to the concept is the idea that living organisms interact with every other element in their local environment. Ecosystems usually form a number of food webs which show the interdependence of the organisms within the ecosystems2 . The system of Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) has been developed to identify areas of the oceans for conservation purposes: 

“They are national and regional focus areas of a global effort to reduce the degradation of linked watersheds, marine resources, and coastal environments from pollution, habitat-loss and over fishing.”3

For instance such as feeding areas of special importance to seabirds, migration routes for mammals and important fishing areas for indigenous people. LMEs are regions of the world's oceans, relatively large in the order of 200 000 square km or greater, characterized by distinct bathymetry, hydrographic and productivity. The world’s 64 LMEs produce 95% of the annual marine fishery biomass yields. Most of the global ocean pollution, overexploitation, and coastal habitat alteration occur within their waters4 . The 17 Arctic LMEs (see Figure 4.2), are various and dynamic systems under stress from global warming and the melting of sea ice.

Arctic marine species are few, but each species have high numbers. Advances in the melting of the Arctic ice have implications for zooplankton, fisheries, fish stocks, marine mammals, marine birds, which appear to be shifting northward. The number of species generally decreases with increasing latitude. The Arctic flora and fauna, together with the harsh physical environment of Arctic habitats, have resulted in lower species diversity than in the Arctic compared to other regions. Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) has found that around 3% of the global flora and about 2% of the global fauna occurs in the Arctic5 .

The Arctic marine environment is in particular exposed to potential impacts from marine activity, such as shipping. Increased shipping in the Arctic may pose a potential threat to the Arctic ecosystem and on the population of species. A great amount of species circulate throughout the Arctic to feed, mate, give birth, take care of their young and moult. As they follow their patterns of living, they’re also exposed for various forms of disturbances and implications from shipping activity.

Figure 4.2: Map of the 17 Arctic LMEs and Linked Watersheds


Source: www.lme.noaa.gov/LMEWeb/Publications/tm208.pdf

Weather it is the release of substances through emissions to air or discharges to water, accidental releases of oil or hazardous cargo, disturbances of wildlife sound, sight, collisions or the introduction of invasive alien species6 . As an example, some 280 species migrate and around 450 species are recognized breeding7 . A number of arctic marine mammal and bird species are circumpolar, and are represented by several populations and even sub-species (e.g., the bowhead whale, walrus, bearded seal, ringed seal, different gulls etc.)7 . Many species that undertake seasonal migrations appear to use environmental conditions as cues7 . As an example, the migration passages used by mammals and birds correspond largely with the main shipping routes into and out of the Arctic. Presently, there is limited overlap throughout the spring migration as all shipping activity typically will occur later in the spring than the animal migration. Nevertheless, in the fall, there is a larger possibility for interaction between ships and migration species, as both are leaving the Arctic in advance of the formation of the pack ice. The spring migration passages are especially sensitive and exposed for marine mammals and birds. Short feeding seasons mean that if the feeding periods of some animals are disrupted, that animal may not get enough food to survive the winter. These unique characteristics make Arctic species vulnerable to disturbances that shipping activities may lead to.

Marine Ecosystems on the Northeast Passage

The following LMEs are defined on the NEP: Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea and Chukchi Sea (see figure 4.2). According to the NOAA, these LME boundaries refers to a system of conservation purposes only, which means that organisms across the LMEs must be understood as they are functioning together. There are exact delimitations between: 1) the western part including the Barents Sea (as part of the NEP) and the Kara Sea (as part of NEP/NSR) and 2) the marginal seas of eastern part of the NEP/NSR including - Laptev, East Siberian and Chukchi seas. Until the mid 1990s there were no data available on the state of ecosystems in winter and spring for the seas running along the NEP/NSR. Based on results of regular monitoring carried out by the Murmansk Biological Institute from Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers navigating the Arctic during the whole ice season, a series of new conclusions on the structure and function of Arctic ecosystems at different tropic levels (plankton communities to marine birds and mammals) has been obtained5 .

Ecosystems on the Western Part of the Northeast Passage

There is a fairly large volume of shipping in the Barents Sea while the shipping activity is considerable less in the Kara Sea1 . The Barents Sea LME is considered as a high productivity ecosystem, with biological activity determined mainly by seasonal changes in the temperature and light regimes, advection and ice cover. About 3000 species have been recorded in the area and it is one of the world’s most important fishing areas5 . Currently, the prevailing maritime activities on the NEP are fisheries in the Barents Sea and cargo shipping. The fish fauna includes about 150 fish species, but less than 30 species are of commercial value. The major species fished are capelin, Atlantic cod and herring, with herring and capelin being major prey of cod. Overfishing has been substantial, but has been declining since 20068 .

The main shipping route into the area is along the coast of Norway (see chapter 1). One main shipping lane goes in inshore waters, and much of the traffic to and from ports in northern Norway follows this route. Traffic to and from Russia follows an offshore route in the open sea to ports in Murmansk, the White Sea and other areas. Transport of oil from Russia is from ports in the White Sea, Murmansk, Pechora Sea (Kolguev, Varandey), and Ob and Yenisei estuaries in the Kara Sea. There is also year-round shipping of nickel ore from Dudinka, a port in the Yenisei estuary (see chapters 1 and 5). In the western Barents Sea there is a shipping route to Svalbard with seasonal traffic of cargo ships supplying the communities, bulk carriers transporting coal and cruise ships. There is also a substantial number of fishing vessels that operate year round in the ice-free part of the southern and central Barents Sea, while there is little fishing activity in the Kara Sea (see Fig.4.3)1 .

Vulnerable areas in the Barents and Kara seas have been identified in relation to oil and gas activities, based on where there are aggregations of animals that could potentially be impacted by oil spills or disturbances from activities. However, and except from oil spill, characteristic disturbance factors (noise, potential collisions with animals etc.), shipping is not seen as a large threat to the overall ecosystem along the NEP1 . However, the Barents Sea holds more than 7 million pairs of breeding seabirds, with major colonies on Svalbard, western Novaya Zemlya and along the coast of northern Norway. The southern and eastern Barents Sea is a wintering area for many seabirds and sea ducks that breed further east in the Russian Arctic. The Pechora Sea area and the southern Kara Sea lie adjacent to tundra and wetlands that are important breeding grounds for geese, ducks and shorebirds. Many of these use coastal habitats for staging during spring migration and after breeding when they prepare for the fall migration out of the Arctic. Nevertheless, there is currently no documented evidence of damages to sea species as a result of shipping activities

Figure 4.3: NEP/NSR Regional Traffic and LME Map


Source: AMSA (2009)

Background contamination in the Barents Sea results from transboundary transport of contamination from land-bases sources and intensive navigation. Contamination levels in ice free areas of the Barents Sea are significantly lower than those of western and southern European seas. Expectations are some coastal areas, especially Kola Inlet housing the largest port and industrial complex in the Arctic (see chapter 5). High ecological vulnerability is also characteristic of the Southeast Barents Sea receiving contaminants from onshore oil and gas production sites located in the Pechora River Basin. Oil and gas production and extraction of chemical, mineral and building raw material have been substantially increasing over the last years (see chapter 3). Increased offshore oil production presents a potential ecological threat to this part of the Barents Sea. Other maritime activities either do not seriously affect the ecosystem (shipping, other military activities) or have just started developing and are expected to be intensified in the future (oil and gas production on the shelf).

Nevertheless, and even if there are no documented negative impacts from shipping activities1 , shipping is a major activity in the Barents Sea area. Traffic involving fishing vessels and passenger ships could potentially have adverse impacts on the environment through operational discharges to water and air, releases of pollutants from anti-fouling systems, noise and introduction of alien species via ballast water or attached to hulls and local discharges from zinc anodes in ballast tanks. Accidental oil spills have occurred and have been associated with high local mortality of seabirds. However, these incidents have not had material impacts on the population level for the affected species5 .

Ecosystems on the Eastern Part of the Northern Sea Route

The number of known species of benthic invertebrates9  decreases from west to east along the NEP, of which NSR is the main part of. The abundance, diversity, biomass and species composition of benthic invertebrates can be used as indicators of changing environmental conditions. There are more than 2.5 times as many species known from the Barents Sea compared to the Chukchi Sea. This is partly a result of harsher Arctic environmental conditions eastward along the NSR, but also because the benthic fauna of the central and eastern part are some of the least studied animal communities in the world10 . The fish resources of the NSR play an important role for local communities, but on a global scale fish resources from these Arctic areas are insignificant. The fish fauna are so sparse and difficult to access that no commercial fishing takes place in the open parts of the seas, except from the western Kara Sea and occasionally in the western Chukchi Sea. No offshore fishery takes place in the Laptev Sea. The commercial fisheries of the NSR are restricted to the lower parts of the large rivers and estuaries.

However, effects of increased shipping and navigation along NSR may be both adverse and positive for fisheries. Operational and accidental discharges (such as oil spills), belongs to the first category. Increased sailing can also physically disrupt the fisheries. On the other hand, NSR may serve as a mean for transportation of fish products to markets outside the area, and also ensure supply of fishing gear, equipment etc., which can facilitate exploitation of fish resources that currently are considered less attractive10 .

The NSR area comprises many important marine mammals, marine bird species and seabird colonies that are using different parts of this area for activities, such as nesting, mate, breeding and seasonal migration. During INSROP most of the mammalian species occurring along the NSR were evaluated, focusing on species that may potentially be affected by shipping, and where changes in the populations may occur as a result of such impacts10 . Polar bear and Walrus were the most vulnerable species11 . Noise, smell and visual impressions from ship traffic, in addition to potential oil spill may be the largest threat to these species.

However, there is no specific case or significant trends from the INSROP-study showing permanent damage to these species as a direct effect from shipping activities. Although there may be four principal transit routes of the NSR – coastal, marine, high-latitudinal and near-pole routes – (see chapter 1). Most traffic follows the coastal route and the traffic decreases, going from the coastal to the near-pole routes. This indicates that the further from the coast one gets, the smaller amount marine traffic occurs, and likely reduced impact on the environment from the marine traffic. 

Marine Ecosystems on the Northwest Passage

 Smaller colonies of seabirds are using the mainland coast of NSR for breeding and nesting, but large colonies are also recognized on the Arctic islands. Especially on the northeast of Novaya Zemlya, specific parts the New Siberian Islands and Wrangle Island. The most vulnerable period is the time during the breeding period from early April until September, also the period when the marine traffic along NSR are most frequent. Possible oil spill are considered as the main threat to marine bird species12 . However, there are also positive factors related to shipping and the ecosystems along the NSR. The creation of leads, crevices and turning of ice floes as a result of shipping activity, may increase the food availability and have a positive effect on certain seabird populations. Still, the input of this factor is unknown12 .

The Canadian Arctic is home to a diverse range of wildlife that thrives in a variety of ecosystems. These populations are now under stress in varying degrees due to the changes occurring in the Arctic environment as a result of global climate change. Four of the 17 Arctic LMEs occur in Canadian waters (See figure 4.2)1 . Including Hudson Bay where the port of Churchill is located a prime trading port for destination Arctic shipping and endpoint for the shipping route starting in Murmansk, the so called “Arctic bridge”. The other three LMEs are Baffin Bay/Davis Strait, Arctic Archipelago and Beaufort Sea going through the NWP.

A number of geographically restrictive areas are located here used as shipping lanes for various destination reasons. This includes the Bering Strait, the Hudson Strait, the Lancaster Sound and the Aleutian Island chain. This illustrates the use of the Northern Pacific as a connection between the Arctic Corridors. Furthermore, these areas are also used by species such as bowhead, beluga and grey whales, fur seals, marine birds and other organisms for seasonal migration. It is where shipping routes travel through these geographically restrictive areas, or chokepoints, that marine mammals are most vulnerable and where it is the greatest potential for conflict between ships and migrating marine mammals. The migration routes used by bowheads and belugas from their wintering areas in the southern extent of the ice and into the high Arctic are also broadly the routes used for destination shipping in the Arctic. In the Bering Strait, for example, the western stock of bowhead whales seasonally migrates through. In this area, they are physically tightened to a relatively small passage and exposed to interactions with vessels transiting this area during spring and fall. Bowhead and whale migration could also potentially be interrupted by icebreakers; on the other hand, whales could also follow the open leads created by icebreakers.

The Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea LMEs are undergoing rapid changes as annual and multiyear ice coverage shrinks relative to the past 50 years5 . Increased vessel traffic in these areas are likely to result in greater incidents of pollutant discharges and could increase the risk of disturbance effects such as ship noise and ship strikes on foraging bowheads or other marine mammals. Any vessel incidents in this region would also have the potential to adversely affect major populations of nesting shorebirds, waterfowl and other birds that utilize breeding, nesting and foraging habitat along the coastal Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and along the coast of western Alaska. The Beaufort Sea coast along the northern slope of Alaska and the Russian side neither has any infrastructure (see chapter 5). In case of any incidents in this area, there are no responses, rescues and debris for clean-up.

The North Pacific Great Circle Route between western North America and eastern Asia is a high volume shipping lane that passes through the Unimak Pass in the Aleutian chain, passing in close proximity to important marine mammal resting place, rookeries and nesting sites for marine mammals and seabirds. In addition, close to commercial fishing ground and one of the biggest protected essential fish habitats in the world1 . The AMSA-study calculates that approximately 2800 vessels passed along this route in 2004. This region seasonally supports populations of shorebirds, nesting sea birds, herring and other marine resources as well as millions of salmon during their migrations to streams of origin. This route passes through the U.S. Alaska Coastal Maritime Wildlife Refuge, which provides nesting and foraging habitat seasonally for millions of seabirds and year-round habitat for thousands of marine mammals.

The populations of numerous marine species in this region are declining and in danger of potential extermination. Commercial fisheries in the region, where the Great Circle route passes, provide a large proportion of the annual landings by the U.S. fishing industry. Salmon, halibut, herring, crab, ground fish and many other fisheries are prosecuted annually. In 2004, Alaska fish landings were 2.43 million Metric Tons, valued at US$ 1.17 billion1 . This segment of the Northern Pacific Corridor, mentioned above, also passes across two Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs): The East Bering Sea LME and the West Bering Sea LME.

There are four LMEs of Alaska within the U.S. exclusive economic zone: The Gulf of Alaska -, the East Bering Sea -, the Chukchi Sea - and the Beaufort Sea LME. This is also illustrating the connection between NPC and NWP. The East Bering Sea LME includes the Aleutian Islands Sub Area and is the most productive area in the U.S. in terms of fisheries, followed by the Gulf of Alaska LME. Together these two systems have produced 55 % of U.S. fisheries landings in recent years. Increased vessel traffic of the eastern route that passes through the eastern Bering Sea will increase potentially interactions with this region’s rich fishery resources, fishing communities and numerous fishing vessels and support vessels. Spills due to accidental or illegal discharge from vessels could drift ashore to western Alaska areas where seasonal herring and salmon fisheries occur.

Regulatory restrictions have been around since the 197013 , with the intent to protect local communities and the environment of the Canadian and U.S. Arctic. However, and due to the changing climate, there is now the potential for a significant increase in resource development activity, which would lead to increased destination Arctic shipping. Whether this increase in activity will have severe or minor impacts on the local environment is yet to be determined. However, any increase in activity brings with it a corresponding increase in the risk of injures to the environment from regular ship operations and accident or urgent situations. Due to the current relatively low levels of shipping activity occurring on the NWP, any increase in activity in this region will be significant.

Canada is prepared to work in partnership with the U.S. on a LME demonstration project in the Beaufort Sea. The Beaufort Sea LME is a high-latitude, mainly ice covered LME bordered by northern Alaska and Canada, with extreme environment driven by major seasonal and annual changes. New developments for the production of oil and gas are considered. It is clear from existing assessments that the resident population on both the Canadian and the U.S. coasts of the Beaufort Sea LME are undergoing major socioeconomic changes, caused by the significant increase in the rate of ice melt in the ecosystem5 .

Marine Ecosystems on the Transpolar Passage

The central Arctic Ocean LME is centred on the North Pole and is bordered by the landmasses of Eurasia, North America and Greenland (See Fig. 4.2). The LME has a permanent ice cover that extends seasonally between 60° N and 75° N latitude and is subject to a rapid climate change with the ice cover shrinking in thickness and extent. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported on 13 September 2006 that, in 2005-2006, the winter ice maximum was about 6% smaller than the average amount over the past 26 years. The sea ice extent in September 2007 was about 20-25% below the long term mean14 . Low temperatures, ice cover and extreme seasonal variations in light conditions are some of the physical characteristics that slow down biological processes, limit the productivity of Arctic ecosystems and make them more vulnerable to contaminants. The Arctic Ocean primary production strongly depends on the ocean’s sea ice cover (SIC). Over the last decade, the Arctic SIC extent and thickness decreased significantly. The SIC area in 2007 and 2008 was 20-25% smaller than ever before15 .

There is a limited number of Arctic species of commercial importance in the Central Arctic Ocean LME. Fish fauna is not well studied partly because of the lack of commercial fishery, but there are some few observations15 . For instance, Arctic Charr, occur throughout the NWP, and have been sighted further north than any other fish species. In the summer, many stocks of Arctic Charr migrate to the sea where they have a larger resource base to exploit and thus are able to grow faster. While at sea, they feed on crustacean and small fish. Under extreme winter conditions, they hardly feed at all. Sea mammals abound and are still exploited. However, the Arctic LME does include waters seasonally ice free and regularly commercially fished both: in the Northwest Atlantic including Baffin Bay and Davis Strait (connecting the NWP in the east), and in the Northeast Atlantic, north of Iceland and towards Svalbard (connecting the Fram Corridor and the TPP).

In terms of shipping, no commercial cargo ship has yet crossed the central Arctic Ocean. The Arctic Container Project (ARCON) concluded that the Arctic sea ice cover has always been and will continue to be a significant physical barrier to developing a global trade route, even if climate models show a continuous decrease in September ice extent16 . Currently the ice conditions are too heavy for the benefits to exceed the expected additional costs. Furthermore, the ice conditions will continue to be heavy during winter and spring seasons, even in 2050, and the route is not expected to be completely ice free in summer16 . In that respect, it has been little discussions about the environmental impacts caused by shipping on the TPP.


  •  1. AMSA (2009), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report, PAME, Arctic Council, Terragraphica, Anchorage, April 2009
  •  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecosystem
  •  3. Defined by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Arctic Council.
  •  4. Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_marine_ecosystem
  •  5. Norsk Polarinstitutt (2009), Best Practices in Ecosystem-based Ocean Management in the Arctic. Rapportserie no.129. Tromsø April 2009
  •  6. Østreng, W. (ed.) (1999a), National Security and International Environmental Cooperation in the Arctic – the Case of the Northern Sea Route. Kluwer. Dordrecht/Boston/London, 1998.
  •  7. ACIA (2005), Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005
  •  8. Brigham, L. (2007), Thinking about the Arctic’s Future: Scenarios for 2040, The Futurist (September-October 2007)
  •  9. OzCoasts Australian Coastal Information: http://www.ozcoasts.org.au/indicators/benthic_inverts.jsp
  •  10. INSROP (1998), International Sea Route Programme, Working Paper 99, The NSR Environmental Atlas. By O.W. Brude, K.A.Moe, V. Bakken, R. Hansson, L.H. Larsen, J. Thomassen & Ø. Wiig. May 1998.
  •  11. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA): http://a100.gov.bc.ca/appsdata/epic/documents/p239/d21939/1151444602531_f314149f768a4109abd3ab91484841ea.pdf
  •  12. Ibid.
  •  13. Library of the Canadian Parliament: http://www.parl.gc.ca/information/library/PRBpubs/prb0561-e.htm
  •  14. NASA (2006)
  •  15. http://www.lme.noaa.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=110:lme64&catid=41:briefs&Itemid=72
  •  16. ARCON (2009)

Karl Magnus Eger, 2010, Arctic Ecosystems and the Impact by Shipping Activities, CHNL.©