Rapidly melting Arctic ice has opened up enormous swaths of this pristine and ecologically significant landscape to dangerous industrial threats. And as officials meet this week to hammer out new rules that could potentially protect the region, environmental groups are warning that the area known as the “Arctic Galapagos” is already in grave danger.
Scientists have reported that the Arctic is currently warming at nearly double the global average rate, which is one of the key factors driving an unprecedented level of ice sheet loss. In a troubling development, this January saw a record low for sea ice extent.
These newly-open waters have seen a surge in industrial activity, including fishing and shipping, which heretofore have been left largely unregulated, according to green groups.
Greenpeace on Wednesday released an investigation (pdf) which found that industrial fishing fleets are increasingly moving into Arctic waters, particularly the previously ice-covered Barents Sea, off of Norway.
“Sea ice loss in the northern Barents Sea is turning it into a new hunting ground for industrial fishing,” Greenpeace states. “Fishing brings with it the threats of habitat degradation and bycatch, potentially wiping out marine life and putting this whole fragile ecosystem at risk.”
The northern Barents Sea, known as the “Arctic Galapagos,” is home to “a huge diversity of marine life including bowhead whales, walruses and polar bears, along with rare fish and invertebrates,” the report states. It is also currently holds the largest cod stock in the world, which international fishing companies are rushing to exploit.
At the same time, environmentalists are raising concern about the uptick in shipping traffic moving through newly-open Arctic channels. Such traffic, warns John Kaltenstein, a marine policy analyst with Friends of the Earth (FOE), invites “the use of heavy fuel oil, harmful air emissions, and invasive species risk.”