Stephen MacLean, director, Alaska Chapter’s Polar Marine Program
By Laura Chartier
At the northernmost edge of the United States lie some of the most remote and intact marine ecosystems on earth: the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Though the names of these seas may be unfamiliar, some of the iconic species that live within them — like the polar bear and walrus — are known and appreciated around the world.
But many other lesser-known — and unique — species live in these waters as well, and are highly adapted to conditions at these high latitudes. A type of Arctic kelp, for example, grows under ice, during winters of total darkness. Other species, like the vividly patterned ribbon seal, thrive on sea ice, relying on ice habitat as a platform for feeding, giving birth and other activities.
Many Arctic marine animals are also critical to the cultural and traditional subsistence practices of Alaskan Inuit people; the bowhead whale, for example, represents a continuous tradition of whaling for a minimum of 2,000 years. In addition to wildlife, this region holds natural resources which support the livelihoods of many Alaskans.
However, Alaska’s Arctic seas face intensifying stresses on several fronts. Climate change is occurring more dramatically in the polar regions than anywhere else on earth. In the Arctic, rapid warming in recent years has led to habitat loss for animals such as seals, polar bears, and walruses, as the sea ice on which they rely continues to melt.
Ocean acidification and coastal erosion are growing threats to a range of species, from Arctic fish to nesting seabirds, and present challenges to human communities as well. These ecological changes translate to losses for subsistence hunters, who need stable sea ice and healthy wild populations in order to access and harvest subsistence species.
At the same time, the decline of sea ice is opening access to the offshore marine environment in new ways. Opportunities for energy development, shipping, and transportation continue to expand as sea ice loss makes access to new areas possible. Commercial and industrial activities, while important for Alaska’s economy, also bring risks. If development continues to increase as anticipated, the risks of oil spills, ship strikes, habitat degradation, coastal impacts, and noise impacts on marine mammals may grow as well.
Fortunately, the Alaskan Arctic still represents a unique opportunity for conservation. “In the Alaska marine Arctic environment, we have the chance to undertake comprehensive planning before conflicts arise from human activities,” says Stephen MacLean, the director of the Alaska Chapter’s Polar Marine Program. “This is a unique place and it needs our attention.”
Because the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas is still a relatively intact and healthy habitat, there is a great opportunity for proactive conservation — to work to balance the needs of subsistence communities, sustainable development, and an ecosystem in need of increased resilience to climate change.
To meet the need for long-range, regional planning in this environment, the Conservancy has developed a Conservation Action Plan for Alaska’s Marine Arctic. Developed with expert input, this plan describes the Conservancy’s vision for the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and identifies key conservation targets, stressors, and regional conservation strategies. Ecosystem-based planning approaches, such as marine spatial planning, are part of our vision for the future, and offer a framework for balancing the needs of different ocean users while maintaining ecosystem integrity.
Because our scientific understanding of this ecosystem remains limited, further research efforts and data collection will be critical to ecosystem-based planning efforts. Though we cannot wait for more data before we act, we’ll be able to adapt our strategies as our scientific understanding improves. The Conservancy is focused on building partnerships and supporting efforts to develop long range science and research plans for the region. Contributing to the Conservancy’s national efforts around marine spatial planning will be one of many strategies in our toolbox.February 21, 2011
Laura Chartier is a marine planner for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska.