Joint Norwegian-Russian environmental status 2013 - Summary and conclusions

Narwhal (Monodon monoceros). Photo: Kit Kovacs & Christian Lydersen, Norwegian Polar Institute

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The Norwegian-Russian environmental status report on the Barents Sea ecosystem is a project under the Joint Norwegian-Russian Commission on Environmental Cooperation, and is part of the Commission's work programme for 2013-2015. This work is carried out within the Marine working group and represents an update of the common environment status first published in 2009, at www.barentsportal.com. More than 130 experts from a total of nine Russian and 22 Norwegian management and research institutions have participated in the preparation of the report, and the work has been organized in 13 expert groups. The project has been led by institutions in Russia (SEVMORGEO and PINRO) and Norway (NPI and IMR). Expert groups began their work in March 2015, and the report is based on data collected in 2013-2014 and earlier.

The report gives descriptions and status of the most important abiotic and biotic components of the ecosystem, and the human activities and their influences based on knowledge and monitoring from Norwegian, Russian and other scientific institutions. This report strengthens the knowledge base for the development of an ecosystem-based management plan for the Russian part of the Barents Sea and for the further development of management plan for Norwegian parts of the Barents Sea.

The Barents Sea ecosystem is driven by climate conditions and is highly susceptible to the effects of climate change. In recent years, interest has focused on the likely response of the ecosystem to future climate change and ocean acidification. Expected long-term changes include: increased temperatures; less sea ice; and a warmer ocean. Both human-induced climate change and ocean acidification may have large impacts in the future. The effects of anthropogenic climate change are already apparent. Examples include:

  • Increased precipitation and fresh-water runoff;
  • Increased release of greenhouse gases (CO2) into the atmosphere creating a small but steady temperature increase each year — a general warming trend has been observed since the 1970s;
  • Increased release of greenhouse gas emissions is also linked to ocean acidification — another emerging issue in the Barents Sea;
  • A large reduction in winter ice coverage — annual sea ice extent has decreased by 50%, reaching its lowest level for the last 60 years;
  • Retreating ice edges are opening new grounds for trawl fisheries and for marine transport routes. Activities in some of these newly-opened grounds may affect benthic communities that were previously protected by ice cover;
  • A moderate increase in net primary production has occurred since 1997, most likely caused by a response to changes in climate that include increases in the area and duration of open water each year;
  • Most commercial fish stocks have increased their prevalence northward and eastward. The distribution of Northeast Arctic cod has expanded; their occurrence has never before been recorded so far north as during 2012 and 2013.

Although climate change affects organisms inhabiting the Barents Sea ecosystem in direct and profound ways, the mechanism through which this occurs are not well understood. Thus, it remains difficult to predict what effects climate change will have upon life in the Barents Sea. Perhaps the effects of human-induced climate change and ocean acidification in combination with the potential effects of overfishing and escalating oil and gas activities are the greatest threats to sustainable productivity.

Key findings

  • Air temperature over the Barents Sea remained high in 2013. The average temperature was 5.0 C°, which was above the average temperature for the period 1985-2013. During 2013, the number of days with winds exceeding 15 meters per second (m/s) was more than usual. In the Eastern Barents Sea it was the highest since 1981.
  • During 2012, the average temperature of the sea in the Kola section (Russian part of the Barents Sea) the highest observed since 1900. It remained higher than normal in 2013, with increasing positive deviation to the east in the sea area. The surface water was unusually warm due to the stronger than usual seasonal warming.
  • There has been a general downward trend in sea ice in the Barents Sea in the last four ten-year periods, especially in the winter. In the summer of 2013, there was no ice in the Barents Sea.
  • Water masses near the surface were well mixed in the winter of 2013, with high abundance of nutrients and low biomass of phytoplankton. In the summer of 2013 phytoplankton biomass was at or close to the maximum, and has been high in the period 2008-2013.
  • The total biomass of demersal fish is the highest on record. The 2013 year class of Northeast Arctic cod was large, and the spawning stock size was record high.
  • The 2013 year class for polar cod was small, and natural mortality has increased, possibly due to increased predation by Northeast Arctic cod.
  • The shrimp population in the Barents Sea and the waters off Spitsbergen has generally increased since the 1990s, and its distribution has moved to the northwest in the last 10 years.
  • During the period 1998-2012, changes were observed in the occurrence of new fish species in the Barents Sea. The density of the cold-water fish species decreased between 2000 and 2010, but has increased slightly during the last five years. At the same time, more southern warm-adapted fish species are observed in the Barents Sea more frequently.
  • During 2013, thirty-two (32) different species of sea birds were observed in the Barents Sea, with a general decrease in the number of individuals, especially in the 349 southern areas. The largest populations were found north of the polar front; including; thick-billed murre; northern fulmar; black-legged kittiwake; and little auk. During 2013, the distributions of these species remained unchanged.
  • During 2013, 12 species of marine mammals were identified in the Barents Sea. The most commonly observed species was the Barents Sea white-beaked dolphin. Most of the Barents Sea whale species are now on the IUCN’s Red List. Decreasing sea ice coverage is causing problems for several species of marine mammal, including ringed seals, hooded seal, Greenland's seal and polar bear.
  • Increased human activity and new shipping routes in the Far North raise concerns about the introduction of new species in the Barents Sea. North of the Arctic Circle, six non-indigenous species are now recognized as reproducing. Of these king crab and snow crab have significant negative effects on the ecosystem.

At present, the Barents Sea remains a relatively pristine area of the Arctic with low pollution levels compared to marine areas in many industrialized parts of the world, although a wide variety of man-made chemicals are found in most components of the marine environment.

The main sources of contaminants in the Barents Sea are outside the region (introduced through long-range transport), accidental releases from local activities, and ship fuel emissions. Historically, the ecosystem has been strongly influenced by fishing and the hunting of marine mammals. Other more recent human activities include: transportation of goods; tourism; aquaculture; bio-prospecting, and industries linked to oil and gas extraction. These human pressures combine with climate variability to determine the environmental status of the Barents Sea ecosystem.

The issue of existing and potential radioactive contamination in the marine environment has received considerable attention in Norway. The Norwegian Marine Monitoring Programme (RAME) monitors radioactivity in both coastal areas and the open sea. RAME also monitors discharges from Norwegian sources, and collects discharge data for the long-range transport of radionuclides from various sources.

In the Barents Sea, overall activity concentrations of common radionuclides (such as 99Tc, 90Sr, 137Cs, 239+240Pu, 241Am, and 226 Ra) are similar to or slightly lower than concentrations observed in recent years and indicate a general trend of decrease for all the radionuclides. This can be explained by reduced discharge levels and processes such as radioactive decay, sedimentation, and dilution (NRPA, 2015).

Substantial oil and gas reserves have been discovered in the Barents Sea. Petroleum exploration is ongoing; extraction facilities are in operation in both Russian (oil) and Norwegian (gas) waters; and increasing amounts of petroleum products are being transported. Accordingly, the challenge is to ensure that these activities can take place alongside the traditional use of the sea (fisheries) without negatively affecting the marine resource base, the environment, and consumer safety.

Future shipping activities in the Barents Sea will largely depend on the expansion rate of oil and gas related industries in northern areas, which will depend on both regional and global economic developments. A warming climate and subsequent increase in ice-free shipping routes through Arctic waters could also contribute to increased ship traffic. Forecasts for volumes of dangerous goods being shipped in the future are not clear. Assuming that Europe remains the primary market for Russian oil, some estimates forecast a steady increase from 15 million tonnes in 2010 to 50 million tonnes in 2025.The liquid natural gas (LNG) plant at Melkøya (Norway) ships LNG, liquified petroleum gas (LPG) and gas condensates. Working at full capacity, Melkøya ships about 5 million tonnes of LNG, LPG, and gas condensate per year. This results in about 70 gas shipments annually from Melkøya, in addition to about 300 tankers carrying Russian export petroleum cargoes westwards along the Barents Sea coast. The risk of serious accidents with oil tankers will increase in years to come, unless measures are imposed to reduce that risk.

A management plan for the Barents Sea – Lofoten area was the first developed for a Norwegian marine area (Report No. 8 (2005–2006)). The 2006 white paper states that the plan will be updated at regular intervals. The Norwegian government considers it important to ensure that the plan be implemented and followed up systematically and flexibly based on new knowledge, changes in levels of activity, trends in environment status, and other developments. The plan has been once revised: “The updating of the management plan for the marine environment in the Barents Sea and the waters off the Lofoten Islands” (Report No. 10 (2010–2011) to the Storting). A process is underway to complete another update of the management plan in 2020 and remain in effect until 2040. The Government will ensure that all affected interest groups have an opportunity to actively participate in this process.

A strategy to develop maritime activities in the Russian Federation through 2030, approved by the Federal Government on December 8, 2010 № 2205-p, provides for the inclusion of such activities within an "integrated management of marine resources". On 29.06.2014, Russian President V.V. Putin signed a list of directives based on results of a meeting on safe development of the Arctic that took place in St. Petersburg on 05.06.2014. sec. 3 specifies the task "to develop a pilot project of the integrated management of natural resources in the Arctic seas and to implement it in the Russian part of the Barents Sea". In 2014, the Russian Ministry of natural resources and environment-initiated work on research and development for the pilot project on marine spatial planning in the Russian part of the Barents Sea. The project involved Joint Stock Company (JSC) SEVMORGEO, PINRO, MMBI, AARI, VNII Ecology, and WWF-Russia; it was completed in May 2015. Documents used as a basis for the project include:

- Integrated Management of the Marine Environment of the Barents Sea and the Sea Areas off the Lofoten Islands (2005-2006):

- https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/upload/md/vedlegg/stm200520060008en_pdf; and

- Guidelines for Marine Spatial Planning of International Oceanographic Commission UNESCO (2009): http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001865/186559e.pdf.

Monitoring confirms that the Barents Sea environment is generally a clean sea area, with relatively low contaminant levels, with a few exceptions. Long-term data are lacking for many chemical components, and our knowledge of bioaccumulation, bio-magnification, and metabolic degradation of pollutants through the nutrient chain is limited. Another matter of concern is the distribution and content of radioactive substances in the marine environment, which may pose major risks to the whole ecosystem. Effective management of the Barents Sea ecosystem requires extensive knowledge of the ecosystem and the influence of anthropogenic drivers. This entails considering the various commercial activities which may affect the environment, and will help to ensure sustainable use of marine resources. Continued monitoring and evaluation of essential ecosystem components will be necessary to determine the changing status of the Barents Sea ecosystem and the effectiveness of management actions — whether management strategies improve ecosystem services and sustainability. Two types of monitoring are particularly important to integrated ecosystem assessment (IEA); 1) Trend monitoring over time to detect change in the status of an ecosystem component, and 2) Effectiveness monitoring to evaluate whether specific management actions have had the desired effect. In collaboration, Norway and Russia have developed a plan for joint monitoring of the Barents Sea that includes 22 environmental indicators; these data will support future updates of this report and will be helpful to determine appropriate management options.

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