Saving the Arctic: A Roundtable on Ocean Governance and Sustainability

Saving the Arctic: A Roundtable on Ocean Governance and Sustainability

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Congress 2021 blog edition 

Valerie Leow, J.D. Candidate, University of Alberta 

The “Critical Perspectives on Arctic Oceans Governance, Sustainability, and Justice” open event, hosted by the Canadian Law and Society Association (CLSA), centered on the United Nations’ proclamation of 2021 as the beginning of a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) to support sustainable development of the ocean and efforts to reverse declines in ocean health. Sustainable development is often described as requiring balance between the three pillars of the economic aspect, the environmental aspect, and the social aspect. But between these three pillars, where do cross-cutting aspects like ‘equity’ and ‘justice’ fall? This roundtable event aimed to reflect on global issues of equity and justice, with regards to the Arctic Ocean specifically, but also on ocean governance and sustainability in general. 

The roundtable was moderated by Sara Seck, Associate Professor of Law and Associate Dean of Research in the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. Seck described the Arctic Ocean as a semi-enclosed ocean that is surrounded by land mass with few connections to the northern Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean. Although the Arctic Ocean is the smallest ocean in the world, it remains integral to the health of global, social, and ecological systems. The warming of the Arctic as high as three times the global average rate has a significant negative impact on the biodiversity and pre-existing food webs of the region, and translates into a higher risk of extinction for many ice-dependent species. It also carries cultural repercussions, including the loss of local Indigenous knowledge and a reduced access to fishing or hunting areas. Additionally, the increase in ship-based transportation in the Arctic correspondingly increases the risk of noise pollution and oil spills. The declines in Arctic Ocean health are symptomatic of “interlocking forms of oppression” that “privilege the few while inflicting misery on the many, threatening ecological collapse,” in the words of Seck. Instead, she posed the question of whether – and, if so, how – sustainable ocean governance in the Arctic context might be able to overcome “the challenges of intersecting and overlapping forms of injustice felt acutely in the Arctic and by Arctic peoples.” 

International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Dalee Sambo Dorough asserted that the Inuit peoples are integral to Arctic ecosystems. For generations, Inuit subsistence activities have been – and continue to be – in harmony with Arctic ecosystems. “We have this profound relationship between ourselves and the natural world, which – for us – has traditional, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions,” said Dorough. To conclude, she argued that Inuit perspectives, along with their ties to nature, unique knowledge, and holistic understanding of the Arctic, must be fully recognized and integrated in Arctic resource management and conservation strategies regarding climate change in the Arctic by effectively engaging Inuit leaders and communities. 

Researcher in the Faculty of Law at The Arctic University of Norway (UiT) Margherita Paola Poto went a little beyond the topic of ocean governance in speaking about her recently initiated project on water governance. The goal of Poto’s project is to “apply a lens of feeling and sentiments to laws,” starting from the three main pillars of participatory rights for nature in international environmental law, all of which have to be granted to all interested people, to non-state actors, and to all citizens – anyone who could be impacted by an environmental decision. The first pillar, access to documents, should be viewed through the lens of empathy, or the ability to enter communion with other emotions. The second pillar, participation in environmental decision-making, should be viewed through the lens of compassion, or the ability to feel together. And access to justice, the third pillar, should be viewed through the lens of care, or the ability to take restorative action. According to Poto, these participatory rights have progressively been expanded to Indigenous peoples. “We realize that environmental threats are not only threats to the physical element, but also reflect a relationship problem,” said Poto, who aims to both heal relational systems and protect water through her project. 

Killam Postdoctoral Fellow in the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University Tahnee Prior suggested the need for a greater integration of people working across disciplines in the development of governance systems, the need for a better way of connecting with local communities, and the need to learn from local case studies. A lot of the current work and discussions on earth systems governance, said Prior, is largely theoretical and focused on the United States; not a lot of research exists that would be applicable to the Arctic, a place where many issues are trans-boundary. Prior’s work focuses on examining how women in particular interact with the Arctic Ocean. She aims to address the fact that, although women located in coastal communities, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories have “historically held equal positions to men in subsistence fishing,” they still remain “underrepresented and excluded from formal decision-making processes related to fisheries management.” 

Olga Koubrak, a PhD student at the Marine and Environmental Law Institute in the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, spoke on the Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus), a large marine animal that lives up to 35-40 years, reaches sexual maturity quite late (between 5 and 12 years of age), and has few young (around one every three years). All of these biological characteristics combine to make walruses highly vulnerable to over-exploitation, as occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, where the population of the Northwest Atlantic walrus that extended all the way to Nova Scotia was completely extirpated. In 2017, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed the two walrus populations in Canada as being a species of concern. This means that, unless conservation measures are taken, the walrus is likely to become endangered. Since walruses occupy a narrow niche that is very sensitive to climate change, these concerns are especially exacerbated today, with the dramatic loss of sea ice impacting the walruses’ ability to feed, and shipping disturbances (e.g. ships or low-flying planes) interfering with their ability to communicate amongst each other. Koubrak stressed the need to engage in habitat protection in order to protect this species. 

Desai Shan, Assistant Professor in the Community Health and Humanities Division of the Faculty of Medicine at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, opened by discussing the increasing concern regarding Arctic shipping activity in the context of climate change. While Arctic shipping is far from a new phenomenon, Shan focused specifically on the increase in destination shipping, with the purpose of most Arctic shipping activity in the Northwest Passage (NWP) being to provide supplies to Northern communities. Some hazards related to Arctic shipping that Shan listed include: sea ice; low temperatures; rapidly changing weather; extended periods of darkness or daylight; high latitude interruptions of navigation or communication systems; lack of suitable emergency response equipment; and environmental pollution. Following this, Shan delved into the impact of COVID-19 on Arctic shipping. He cited the government-mandated shore leave ban for seafarers – or the cancellation of leave for seafarers between voyages – as an occupational health and safety concern in terms of increased mental health and stress for the seafarers, seeing as they are deprived of the mental relief that they would otherwise derive from being offboard the shipping vessel between voyages.