Regional Environment Case Study - Barents and Kara Seas

(from ASMA Report 2009)


There is a large volume of shipping in the Barents Sea and considerably less in the Kara Sea. The main shipping route into the area is along the coast of Norway. A main shipping lane goes through 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 (i.e., Kolguev and Varandey), and Ob’ and Yenisei estuaries in the Kara Sea. There is also year-round shipping of nickel ore by Norilsk Nickel from a port in the Yenisei estuary. 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.

In 2006, Norway adopted an integrated management plan for the Norwegian part of the Barents Sea and adjacent waters off the Lofoten Islands. In the preparatory work for this plan, an assessment of environmental impacts from shipping was carried out and valuable and vulnerable areas were identified. The plan established a forum on environmental risk management headed by the Norwegian Coastal Administration, which is tasked with providing better information on risk trends in the area, especially as regards acute oil pollution from ships and other sources. In July 2007, the IMO established regulations that require larger cargo vessels and tankers transiting the Norwegian coast of the Barents Sea to operate further away from the coast than in the past. This requirement is intended to allow a longer response time in case of accidents that could impact the Norwegian coastal environment and resources.

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. The Barents Sea holds more than seven million pairs of breeding seabirds, with major colonies on Svalbard, the western section of Novaya Zemlya off the coast of northern Russia and along the coast of northern Norway. The oceanographic polar front and the ice edge in the western and central Barents Sea is a concentrated zone of life in spring and summer with aggregations of seabirds and seals. The polar front area is also the wintering area for the large Barents Sea capelin stock and for seabirds such as thick-billed murre. Svalbard and Franz Josef Land in the northern Barents Sea are important breeding and feeding areas for seabirds, walrus and seals, and denning areas for polar bear. 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.

The southern Barents Sea is a rich fisheries area with large stocks of cod, haddock, capelin, juvenile herring and shrimp. A major stock of polar cod spawns under ice in the Pechora Sea region, and this region is also the main wintering area for white whales of the Karskaya population that is migratory between the Barents, Kara and Laptev seas. The smaller White Sea beluga population has its wintering area in the Voronka and Gorlo area at the entrance to the White Sea. The Barents Sea harp seal population has its whelping and molting areas on the ice also at the entrance to the White Sea. The Novaya Zemlya population of Atlantic walrus has its wintering area in the pack ice in the Pechora Sea region. White whales and walrus migrate north in spring following lead systems west of Novaya Zemlya, and the white whales continue east through the northern Kara Sea and into the western Laptev Sea in early summer. There are two subpopulations of polar bears in the Barents and Kara seas with seasonal migrations following the ice.

There are no documented negative impacts on animals in this area from shipping activities. Accidental oil spills have occurred and have been associated with high local mortality of seabirds. However, these incidents have not had material impacts at the population level for the affected species. Ship strikes of whales could occur in some areas but there are no reports to suggest that the level of impact is significant. The greatest concern is the threat from accidental oil spills that could have a large impact on seabirds and other marine birds, and also on marine mammals such as polar bear and on spawning polar cod. If shipping activities increase in the future, potential disturbance of wintering marine mammals and ship strikes of whales will become a concern.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

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