Arctic Species’ Interactions with Shipping

(from AMSA Report 2009)


Vulnerability of Arctic Species and Ecosystems

Extreme cold temperatures, ice and strong seasonal variability characterize the Arctic. These extremes have resulted in a range of adaptations among Arctic animals including the ability to store energy when food is plentiful and fast when it is not; highly insulating outer layers such as feather, fur or blubber to keep warm; and a high degree of seasonal migration to and from the region, especially among marine mammals and birds.

The extensive seasonal migrations of marine mammals and birds into and out of the Arctic are key features that determine the vulnerability of Arctic ecosystems. Seabirds, shorebirds and waterfowl move north to breed and feed during the short Arctic summer, exploiting the burst of productivity in the northern ecosystems. Whales and seals have similar migrations to northern feeding areas. Many species aggregate throughout the circumpolar north in very large numbers to feed, mate, give birth, nurture their young and molt. During the periods when Arctic species gather and in the areas where they do so, they are particularly vulnerable to potential environmental stresses, such as accidental discharges from ships and various types of disturbances that ships can cause.

Disturbance during critical stages could disrupt the short feeding season for Arctic species, causing some animals to not get enough food to provide the energy needed for the long migrations they face and for breeding and raising their young. Arctic species, which are reliant on feathers and fur to insulate against the cold, are especially vulnerable to contamination from oil that will compromise their insulating layers, leaving them exposed and at risk of hypothermia and death. It is the unique adaptations of the various species which live in and migrate to the Arctic that make them vulnerable to potential adverse impacts as a result of shipping and other vessel activities.

The degree of oil pollution in the Arctic marine environment is low, according to the recent Arctic Council Assessment of Oil and Gas Activities, with natural seeps being the largest source of input of oil hydrocarbons. Accidental oil spills were seen as the largest threat. While the Arctic environment is still relatively clean for many types of contaminants, recent assessments by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) have shown that persistent organic pollutants (POPs) occur at high levels and pose a threat to top predators in marine food chains, including humans. Heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead are also seen as issues of concern in some parts of the Arctic.

Arctic Species: Interactions with Shipping

Arctic marine mammals such as bowhead, beluga, narwhal, walrus and several species of seals migrate south in fall to spend the winter in the southern areas of seasonal ice. In spring, they move north again, using systems of polynyas and leads, often before the break-up of the ice. At this time, these mammals reproduce and give birth to their young. Important wintering areas for marine mammals are in the broken pack ice in the northern Bering Sea, Hudson Strait, Davis Strait and southeastern Barents Sea. From these areas, the mammals follow leads and openings north through the Bering Strait and the Chukchi Sea; north through Baffin Bay into Lancaster Sound, into Hudson Bay and Foxe Basin; and north and east into the Kara and Laptev seas. The leads and openings in the ice are also used by seabirds, eiders and other marine birds on their spring migration to the northern breeding areas.

The migration corridors used by marine mammals and birds correspond broadly with the main shipping routes into and out of the Arctic. Currently, there is limited overlap during the spring migrations as all shipping activity will typically occur later in the spring than the animal migrations. In the fall, there is likely more opportunity for interaction between ships and migrating species, as both are leaving the Arctic ahead of the formation of the pack ice. As the Arctic climate continues to change, it is very likely that the shipping season could extend earlier in the spring and later into the fall. The spring migration corridors are particularly sensitive and vulnerable areas to oil spills, ship strikes and disturbances, and could be a time of vulnerability for marine mammals and birds. In the future there will be a need to consider the potential risk and interaction between ships and animals during this vulnerable period.

The geographic area covered by this assessment spans a wide range of environmental conditions, from pack ice in the Arctic Ocean to open subarctic waters in the Bering Sea and the Nordic seas in the northeastern Atlantic. The volume of current shipping traffic also varies considerably across the Arctic. Currently, there is significant year-round traffic along the subarctic coast of Norway, around Iceland, on the southeast coast of Greenland and out of the Yenisei River and Pechora Sea to the port of Murmansk in northwest Russia. There is a moderate amount of seasonal shipping to and from destinations in the North American Arctic, and no established trans-Arctic traffic. Risk of negative interaction between vessels and wildlife varies across the region. The North Pacific Great Circle Route between western North America and eastern Asia is a high volume shipping lane that swings through the Unimak Pass in the Aleutian chain, passing in close proximity to important marine mammal haul-outs, rookeries and nesting sites of marine mammals and seabirds, close to active commercial fishing grounds and one of the largest protected essential fish habitats in the world.

The Arctic is Changing

The Arctic climate is warming. The effects of this are now being seen in the retreating sea ice, melting permafrost and the changing timing of the onset of fall and spring, as well as the increasing variability within each season. These changes are affecting Arctic species and ecosystems. Where caribou used to migrate across frozen rivers, they now have to wade. Polar bears swim farther to find food and wait longer in the fall for the pack ice to reform, extending their fasting. Pacific walrus are now hauling out on land in the Chukchi Sea, where they used to haul out mainly on sea ice.

Arctic species and ecosystems are, by nature, highly evolved in function and finely tuned with the timing of seasonal events. Although some species will benefit from the changes, there are many that are now under stress as a result and, for some, at risk of steep decline. For many species, any potential impacts as a result of current or future shipping activity will be in addition to the stress they are already under due to the changes occurring in their environment. It is beyond the scope of the current assessment to examine the interaction between effects from climate change and effects from future shipping activities. This is in part because of the intrinsic difficulties and the many uncertainties about the future.

Climate experts are projecting that the main change in sea ice will be decreasing ice coverage in the summer along the coastal Arctic seas with the formation of first-year ice occurring later in the fall. Even with a warmer climate, the Arctic Ocean will still remain ice-covered for most of the year. As climate and sea ice conditions continue to change, the timing and movements of the animals’ activity will also be modified, making predictions of the potential interactions between shipping and animals increasingly complex.


    Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©