Arctic Shipping Routes and Impacts on Marine Ecosystems

(by Karl Magnus Eger)


Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) 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. LMEs have been developed to identify areas of the oceans for conservation purposes only, which mean that organisms across the LMEs must be understood as they are functioning together. Arctic waters are divided into 17 LMEs (see Figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2: Map of 17 Arctic LMEs and Linked Watershelds


Source: www.lme.noaa.gov/LMEWeb/publications/tm208.pdf(external link)

The Northeast Passage

The following LMEs are defined on the NEP: 1) the western part including the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea and 2) the marginal seas of eastern part of the NEP/NSR including - Laptev, East Siberian and Chukchi seas.

There is a relatively large volume of shipping in the Barents Sea while the shipping activity is considerable less in the Kara Sea. Moreover, 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. Furthermore, 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, significant impacts on the ecosystems by shipping activities, like disturbance (noise, potential collisions with animals etc.) or emissions from ships, has not been documented on the western NEP/NSR.

The number of known species decreases from the western part of the NEP/NSR to the eastern part of the NSR. This is partly a result of harsher environmental conditions eastward on the NSR, but also because the fauna of the eastern part are some of the least studied in the world. From a commercial shipping point of view, fish resources on the NSR play an important role for the local communities. Nevertheless, on a global scale these resources 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. In addition, no offshore fishery takes place in the Laptev Sea. The commercial fisheries on the NSR are restricted to the lower parts of the large rivers and estuaries. Moreover, studies focusing on species that may be affected by shipping activities and where changes in the populations may occur as a result of such impacts have been performed since the beginning of INSROP in 1993. Even if vulnerable areas are identified, there are no indications of permanent damage to ecosystems directly caused by shipping activities.

The Northwest Passage

The following LMEs are located in the NWP: Baffin Bay/Davis Strait, the Canadian Archipelago and corresponding seas and the Beaufort Sea. Furthermore, a number of geographical restrictive areas are located here, used as shipping lanes for various destination-Arctic and intra-Arctic purposes. It has been identified that certain parts of the NWP, like the Lancaster Sound, are used by various species of whales, marine birds and seals 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 Arctic are also broadly the routes used for intra-Arctic and destination-Arctic shipping. On the other hand, there is a relatively low level of shipping occurring on the NWP. Currently, there has not been documented any significant damage on the NWP ecosystems as a result of shipping activities.

The Passages in Comparison

Effective reduction of ship emissions can be achieved through the application of feasible and best available technologies and, most importantly, through effective implementation of relevant IMO regulations.

Increased shipping may pose potential impacts on the ecosystems. For instance, the migration corridor used by marine mammals and birds correspond broadly with the main shipping routes into and out of the Arctic. However studies performed during INSROP identified that effects of increased shipping on the NSR may be both adverse and positive for commercial fisheries. Accidental discharges such as oil spills, belongs to the first category. On the other hand, NSR may serve as a means 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 attractive.

Vulnerable LMEs are identified on the three Arctic transportation corridors. Nonetheless, it has not been documented any significant negative impacts on the ecosystems on the NEP, the NWP or the TPP, caused by shipping activities.


    Karl Magnus Eger, 2010, Arctic Shipping Routes and Impacts on Marine Ecosystems, CHNL.©