Arctic

The Arctic has considerable biological diversity (see table below). There are also robust populations of plankton in the marine environment. The Arctic fisheries are an important resource: the Bering Sea fisheries alone provide half the US catch and 2-5 per cent of the global catch (CAFF 2001).

Biological diversity in the Arctic: number of known species
 
Global
Arctic
Arctic %
fungi
65 000
5 000
7.6
lichens
16 000
2 000
12.5
mosses
10 000
1 100
11.0
liverworts
6 000
180
3.0
ferns
12 000
60
0.5
conifers
550
8
1.2
flowering plants
270 000
3 000
1.2
spiders
75 000
1 000
1.2
insects
950 000
3 000
0.3
vertebrates
52 000
860
1.6
fishes
25 000
450
1.8
reptiles
7 400
4
>0.1
mammals
4 630
130
2.8
birds
9 950
280
2.8
Source: CAFF 2001

For centuries the Arctic has attracted hunters of mammals such as whales, seals, walruses, polar bears and otters. Many species have been repeatedly driven to near extinction and some are below safe biological limits. Hunting continues but is now more tightly regulated. Even so, marine mammal populations in decline include local populations of the Beluga whale, walrus, Steller's sea lion, harbour seal, northern fur seal and the fin whale. For many more marine mammals, the trend is unknown.

Several bird populations and fish species are in decline. The latter include local populations of Atlantic cod, Arctic cod, Greenland halibut and wolf-fishes. Many wildlife populations have suffered starvation due to human activity such as overfishing. For example, in the mid-1980s the capelin stock of the Barents Sea collapsed due to overfishing, resulting in the starvation of hundreds of thousands of harp seals. At least 50 000 more were drowned in fishing gear. Norway banned capelin fishing during 1987-90, allowing the capelin population to recover and fishing to resume but at more sustainable levels (NCM 1993). Puffins have been another casualty. They feed their young mainly on herring fry. In the late 1970s, some 1.4 million pairs of puffins nested at the southwestern end of the Lofoten Islands. In the 1980s, the colony contracted at a rate of 10-15 per cent a year. By 1995, it was less than half its former size because most puffin chicks starved to death due to the overfishing of herring fry since the 1960s. By the mid-1990s, puffins had still not recovered despite an increase in the herring population due to strict fishing regulations (Bernes 1996).

Polar bear populations in the Arctic

Polar bear populations are stable in the pale blue areas, increasing in the dark blue area. Trends are unknown in grey areas. Largest images of the polar bear denote populations of 3 500, smallest images populations of 500

Source: CAFF 2001

Reducing exploitation and other responses have had positive impacts on other populations. For example, an Icelandic fishing ban on Atlantic herring between 1972-75 helped the stock to make a gradual recovery and it is now considered to be within safe biological limits. In the 1940s, the Svalbard population of the barnacle goose had been reduced to only 300 birds. It was then totally protected on its winter ranges in the United Kingdom and a nature reserve was established. Today, there are 23 000 in the Svalbard population. Similar increases have occurred in Greenland and Russia (CAFF 2001, Bernes 1996).

Other pressures on Arctic biodiversity are climate change, and habitat loss and fragmentation. The warming trend is reducing the ice habitat for species such as the polar bear and walrus, and is causing more severe climatic episodes such as ice storms that raise mortality rates (CAFF 2001, Crane and Galasso 1999). The Arctic countries have begun a major project (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment) to develop recommendations for action on the effects of global warming in the Arctic. These countries have also taken several steps to reduce habitat loss and prevent fragmentation. An important response has been to increase the number of protected areas from 280 in 1994 to 405 in 2001 and overall coverage from 2 million km2 to 2.5 million km2. However, this increase has resulted from the domestic actions of individual Arctic countries with little circumpolar collaboration. In 1996, the Arctic countries agreed to cooperate to implement a Circumpolar Protected Area Network Strategy and Action Plan but there is little evidence of progress on implementation (AC 2000).