Thursday, May 28, 2009

Changes in the Arctic Environment - 33rd Annual Conference of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy (UVa), Seward, Alaska

Changes in the Arctic Environment and the Law of the Sea, the 33rd annual conference of The Center for Oceans Law and Policy of the University of Virginia School of Law, concluded this past week (May 20-22, 2009) in Seward, Alaska, having drawn some 150 attendees from North America, Asia and Europe. A remarkable array of experts, many from the diplomatic corps and governmental agencies of Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia and the United States, addressed topics ranging from continental shelf limits in the Arctic Ocean to arctic offshore oil and gas, the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, and arctic living resources and marine biodiversity.

Of the many valuable contributions by the U.S. Department of State, Oceans and Fisheries Directorate, two are especially noteworthy:

David Balton, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Fisheries, offered a clear articulation of the precautionary approach as embodied in the effective ban on commercial fishing in U.S. federal arctic waters contained in the Fishery Management Plan for Fishery Resources of the Arctic (under Secretarial review). The plan was adopted by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in February 2009. NOAA recently opened the public comment period on the policy, which closes July 27, 2009. Balton framed the discussion as acknowledging that relatively little is known about arctic fisheries, and as thinking now about fisheries management later, a message similar to his remarks to the FAO radio agency in Rome earlier this year.

Margaret F. Hayes, Director, Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, spoke of the evolving approach of the United States to extended continental shelf issues. In discussing the United States response to Russia’s 2001 submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf she observed that, in hindsight, the response reflected an inadequate appreciation of the complexities and subtleties of arctic geology.

The formal program included representatives of most arctic stakeholders, with the notable exception of the native Alaskan communities. Earl Kingik, member of the Native Village of Point Hope, Alaska and Inupiat subsistence hunter and whaler, graciously accepted an 11th-hour invitation to join the panel on Arctic Marine Environment and Biodiversity, a gesture all the more remarkable given that Point Hope was in the midst of whaling season.

One of the gems of the conference was the very last session on the Svalbard treaty area. Even under severe time limitations, Robin Churchill, University of Dundee and Geir Ulfstein, University of Norway, gave masterful overviews of the potential complexities of competing claims in Svalbard offshore areas and the status of maritime zones around Svalbard.

Canada was especially well represented amongst panelists and moderators (see the program for their individual topics): Nigel Bankes, Aldo Chircop, Rob Huebert, Suzanne Lalonde, Ron Macnab, Ted McDorman, Lori Ridgeway (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, in absentia) and David VanderZwaag.  Those interested in Canadian - United States relations regarding ocean affairs are encouraged to consult McDorman's very recent and topical book, Salt Water Neighbors.

Notable for observers concerned about translating science for policy-makers was the common reaction from many in the audience to Stephen Macko’s sobering presentation on changes in the arctic marine environment. His emphasis on acidification of the oceans built on information known to most audience members in connection with coral reefs but emphasized the less often realized potential for that acidification to weaken the shells and protective layers of crustaceans and other forms of marine life.

This year the Law of the Sea Institute at Berkeley Law joined COLP as a sponsor of the annual conference.  

Icebreaking into the Arctic

The USCGC HEALY embarked Barrow, Alaska, in August 2008 to map the US extended continental shelf, or ECS, in the Arctic Ocean (HLY 0805). Healy sailed again from 7 August to 16 September, 2009 (HLY 0905) to continue ECS mapping, joining with the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis S. St.-Laurent. The two vessels mapped together again in 2010 (see HLY1002) and 2011 (HLY1102).

As the only law professor on the science crew, I was along on HLY 0805 and 0905 to better understand
the science behind the legal process that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea establishes for states making ECS submissions. As to why the US is mapping now, even though it has not yet acceded to the Convention, read on both here, and in the Law of the Sea notes below.

Thanks to
Vermont Law School and especially to Larry Mayer, Director of the University of New Hampshire's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, for making my part in the trip possible.
Thanks, as well, to Adriane Colburn, for opening new windows on and for the deep.