The Arctic covers eight countries, including the United States. Diverse landscapes – from the sea ice to coastal wetlands, upland tundra, mountains, wide rivers and the sea itself – support abundant wildlife and many cultures. Of all of the wildlife in the Arctic, the polar bear is the most fitting icon for this region. Its amazing adaptation to life in the harsh Arctic environment makes it an impressive species.
Within the Arctic region of the United States, the remarkable waters of the Bering Sea attract marine mammals, such as gray whales, which travel great distances to forage and raise their young. Almost half of the fish caught in the United States comes from this sea. Its fisheries are vital to local communities whose livelihoods depend on fishing and millions of people worldwide. Across the Bering Sea in Russia, the Kamchatka Peninsula’s river systems produce up to one-quarter of all wild Pacific salmon. The salmon provide nourishment to other wildlife, including the Kamchatka brown bear. The Arctic, including the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, now faces an uncertain future due to climate change, mining, shipping, oil and gas development and overfishing in key areas.
The Arctic’s summer sea ice appears to have hit its lowest extent of the year, putting pressure on the region’s diverse wildlife. Ice covered only 1.6 million square miles on Sept. 10, and 2016 is now tied with 2007 for the second-lowest sea ice extent on record, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Shrinking sea ice forces polar bears to spend more time on land, and people and bears can come into conflict. To protect polar bears and ensure the safety of the humans near them, WWF worked directly with residents to create an “Umky” (Chukchi for polar bear) Patrol in Chukotka, Russia. We also helped secure better lighting for communities, distributed educational materials to reduce bear-human conflict, and worked with locals to gather scientific information about the bears. Umky Patrol members now share these successes to find similar solutions to other Alaskan challenges.
Securing and Sustaining Fish for Future Generations
Fisherman with small salmon from the Bering Sea.
People throughout the Arctic depend on fish. For example, the Kamchatka region, Eurasia’s most important salmon “stronghold,” supports all five species of Pacific salmon and the spawning grounds for one quarter of all Pacific wild salmon. Many of these salmon face a number of threats. This includes illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing at sea, in-river poaching, destructive driftnet fishing, and poor management. WWF works with indigenous people and communities to secure and sustain this resource for future generations. WWF also supports an antipoaching brigade and has catalyzed the creation of public councils to manage this important resource through the Kamchatka Salmon Conservation Initiative.
Much of the world’s untapped oil reserves lie offshore, in the Arctic's biologically productive waters. Oil spills can kill birds, fish and marine mammals, as well as the smaller organisms that provide food for these larger species. There is no proven technology that allows for the complete containment of oil spilled in the marine environment. These challenges are even greater in the extreme conditions of the Arctic, where storms are frequent, ice is still present for much of the year, daylight is brief in the winter, and response infrastructure is virtually non-existent. Oil development can also generate life-threatening levels of ocean noise pollution for marine mammals.
Oil covered rocks from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Many areas of the Arctic, particularly in the western portions of the Bering Sea, suffer from high levels of illegal fishing and overfishing. For example, in the Kamchatka region, the wasteful practice of stripping caviar from salmon is harmful to the environment and depletes the salmon populations. Additional threatening practices include mining and the construction of roads and pipelines through salmon streams. Also problematic is the bycatch (taking of non-target species) of fish, birds, and mammals by different types of fishing gear, including large-scale driftnets.
Some Arctic regions contain valuable minerals, including coal, gold and copper. One such area is at the headwaters of several rivers that feed into Bristol Bay. A project – Pebble Mine – proposed for that region would be the largest open-pit mine in North America. Toxic waste from the mine would devastate the bay – which is home to millions of salmon, as well as beluga whales, sea lions and walrus. The mine also would be a threat to wildlife that live on land near the bay including brown bears, wolves, moose and migratory caribou.
Temperatures in the Arctic are rising at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Warming temperatures are linked to many changes in the Arctic, including reduced sea ice, melting permafrost and rising sea levels. The decrease in volume and extent of Arctic sea ice has serious implications for marine mammals that depend on the ice for their survival, such as ringed seals and polar bears. The warmer temperatures result from the burning of fossil fuels, a process that also makes the Arctic waters more acidic and harmful to plankton – the very base of the Arctic’s rich food chain – as well as corals and shellfish.
With longer open water seasons and growing pressures of globalization, more of the Arctic’s waterways are opening up for travel and commercial transportation. Increasing ship numbers pose the threat of shipwrecks, oil spills and the introduction of non-native species. Large ships often do not have adequate safety equipment and emergency plans, and remote areas of the Arctic are largely without capacity to adequately respond to vessels in distress. Ship traffic in the Bering Strait, the narrow waterway between Alaska and Russia, is likely to increase steadily in the coming years, as industrialization grows in the Arctic waters of Russia and Alaska.
What WWF Is Doing
Commercial setnetters pick sockeye salmon from their setnets in the Nushagak district of Bristol Bay, Alaska.
Protecting a Global “Fish Basket”
The Bering Sea is one of the most productive marine regions in the world, a global “fish basket” that feeds people around the planet. Pollock, salmon and other fish also feed marine wildlife, such as Steller sea lions, northern fur seals, bears, seabirds and eagles. Fishing underpins a centuries-old way of life for many Arctic indigenous cultures. WWF combats bycatch and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing as part of the “Fish Forever” initiative. We also engage governments and communities to address threats to the Bering Sea ecosystem and ensure the durability of key fish species.
Planning for the Future
As Arctic seas undergo dramatic transformations caused by climate change, they face multiple threats. As the number of ice-free days in the Arctic Ocean grows, so does access to marine resources such as offshore oil and gas reserves. Shipping is made easier by a longer season of open water for navigation. This new industrial pressure poses the threats of potential accidents such as oil spills and shipwrecks. WWF advocates for better science and spill response technology, “no-go” zones to protect vulnerable wildlife areas, and spill prevention measures as critical steps in planning for the future of the Arctic.
Adapting to Climate Change
Alaska and Chukotka (Russia) have a lot in common, from indigenous cultures and languages to plant species, seabirds, and marine mammals such as the polar bear, bowhead whale, and walrus. These species and the hundreds of indigenous communities who depend on them share another trait: centuries of tradition are being transformed by climate change. WWF brings the U.S. and Russian counterparts together to support scientific research, community engagement in resource management, and conservation efforts for these species. In the Bering Strait, WWF works with partners to identify the most effective measures possible to ensure safe maritime shipping to coexist with community and wildlife needs.
Protecting Bristol Bay
Sockeye salmon are delivered by setnetters to a processing and canning plant.
In December 2014, in partnership with the Fish Basket Coalition, WWF celebrated the announcement by President Obama to protect Bristol Bay from offshore oil and gas drilling. This has been one of WWF’s highest priorities; without protection the region was at risk of a trail of destruction, from the damaging impacts of seismic surveys, to long after the last barrels of oil and gas are shipped away. This protection is a win for the people and wildlife of Bristol Bay. Home to rivers that witness salmon runs of over 37 million fish each year, the bay supports 31 Alaska Native Villages, creates more than 12,000 jobs for fishermen and processors and provides millions of dollars in jobs for commercial fisherman. It is also vital habitat for nearly two dozen types of marine mammals – including the endangered North Pacific right whales, Steller sea lions, Pacific walrus and sea lions.
WWF and The Coca-Cola Company are working to protect the Arctic. Building upon Coca-Cola’s support, since 2007, of WWF’s efforts to protect polar bears, together we are working to raise widespread awareness and funds to help protect the polar bear and its habitat.