Sweden leads meeting on ocean protection in the Arctic

07 October, 2021

Since May, Sweden has taken over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council’s expert group, Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME). The group is led by Swedish Jessica Nilsson, who works as a marine biologist at the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management.

“Tomorrow we have our first meeting with 165 participants. This is where Member States, indigenous groups and observers will participate. We are running this meeting digitally due to the pandemic. And now we have this presidency until May 2023.

The Arctic Council is a body formed in 1996 in Ottawa, Canada. It was formed with the aim of dealing with the Arctic issues that go beyond the territorial borders of nations. The Council consists of eight member countries: Sweden, Denmark (Faroe Islands and Greenland), Finland, Norway, Iceland, the United States, Canada and Russia.

In addition to the member states, there are also permanent members representing the countries’ indigenous groups. However, these members do not have any decision-making power. There is also always room for observers in the Council, where both interest groups and other states may participate. PAME works specifically with issues related to the sea and the marine environment, such as shipping, the establishment of marine reserves and marine pollution.

The Arctic Council is not a legislative body and the decisions taken within the group are not binding. So why is the work of the Arctic Council so important?

“There are so many issues that go beyond national borders where we need a platform to discuss them in peace and quiet – and then the Arctic Council is good. The Arctic is a region that is changing very quickly and there are many new issues that need to be addressed as the area becomes increasingly ice-free. For example, shipping, marine littering or protection of the Arctic Ocean, which we are working on a lot right now.

All Member States have agreed that the currently ice-covered area of the Arctic Ocean should not be exposed to industrial fishing for the next sixteen years, something that the Deep Sea Reporter reported on back in the summer. Instead, researchers should be allowed to investigate the area and they, in turn, should make recommendations to decision-makers on how the area should be managed.

But expanded fishing isn’t the only interest companies and states have at the North Pole. About 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas resources and 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil resources are estimated to be north of the Arctic Circle. But that the area should be protected from oil and gas extraction is not something that is included in the agreement the countries have signed.

“But it will be quite difficult to extract oil and gas now, because the area is still ice-covered.

Isn’t it the same with fishing?

– Yes, that’s true. And I hope that the research we will find during these years, where we focus, among other things, on mapping the biodiversity in the area, will form the basis for protecting this area in the Arctic that is in international waters.

The Arctic is melting faster and faster and the areas that were once ice-covered are soon becoming available for shipping, fishing and oil and gas extraction becoming available.

Jessica has worked as a representative in PAME since 2015, and has also worked in the Antarctic equivalent of the Arctic Council, CCAMLR. Even though the Arctic Council’s decisions and declarations do not necessarily become legislative, Jessica Nilsson thinks that the work she and her colleagues do in PAME is important.

“The research that we do here together is used as a basis for future decisions. This will be something that the Arctic foreign ministers need to take into account. If we do not pursue these projects, they have no basis for their decisions.

Do you think that Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Ann Linde, is sensitive to the research you conduct?

” Now it is not me who primarily has contact with Ann Linde, but Sweden’s Arctic Ambassador Louise Calais has. But I feel that Louise and Ann have listened to what we say and are very committed to, among other things, increased protection for the Arctic Ocean.

Every two years, the Arctic Council holds a ministerial meeting where the foreign ministers of the member states gather to make decisions and sign declarations, which are based on the opinions of the expert groups. The last meeting was in May 2021 and the next one will not be until 2023.

Polar bears
Sweden will chair PAME until 2023.

“And what we’re doing now in PAME is making sure they have enough data for the next meeting, and hopefully then getting the countries more attentive to the changes taking place in the oceans around the Arctic.

The countries that are on the Council differ not only in language, but also ideologically and in their state systems. Are there any countries that find it more difficult to get along than others?

I can say this: all countries represent their national interests. So the postures they have in other forums, they also have in PAME. But more than that, I can’t say.

The first meeting in PAME with Sweden as the country of chairman will begin on Thursday. The next meeting is planned to take place physically in Stockholm at the beginning of February next year, something that the Council has not done for over 1.5 years.

Text: Fanny Jönsson
Photo: PAME/GettyImages

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