For years, commercial ships had two main pathways to easily traverse the globe: the Panama and Suez Canals. Now, after 30 years of unprecedented sea ice melt in the Arctic, the northern Atlantic and Pacific are connected for the first time in 2 million years. That means Arctic shipping is an option, and it’s certainly an appealing one: The routes are faster, ships need less fuel, and piracy isn’t a threat. But unlocking the keys to such a fragile ecosystem carries potential consequences. Not only does Arctic shipping risk collisions and pollution, but it opens the Arctic to invasive species.
A recent study by Smithsonian Environmental Research Center biologists found that new Arctic shipping routes could change the dynamics of invasive species worldwide — particularly around the northern Atlantic and Pacific coastal regions. This could have severe consequences for marine habitats and ecosystems, the study warns.
“Trans-Arctic shipping is a game changer that will play out on a global scale,” lead author Whitman Miller told Smithsonian Science. “The economic draw of the Arctic is enormous. Whether it’s greater access to the region’s rich natural resource reserves or cheaper and faster inter-ocean commercial trade, Arctic shipping will reshape world markets. If unchecked, these activities will vastly alter the exchange of invasive species, especially across the Arctic, north Atlantic and north Pacific oceans.”
There are currently two main shipping routes in the Arctic: The Northwest Passage — which extends through Canada and saw its first passage last September — and the Northern Sea Route, a 3,000 mile-long stretch that connects the Barents and Bering Seas and has seen traffic since 2009. Scientists predict Arctic cargo traffic could increase by 20 percent every year for the next 25 years, according to the authors.
Shipping is responsible for nearly two-thirds of non-native species introductions to marine areas, says Scientific American. Ballast water — taken in at one port to balance ships on their voyage, and then dumped at the next port — is what most commonly transports non-natives, but organisms can also hide in the hull and in cargo. Because invasive species have no natural predators in their new ecosystems, they breed quickly and can dominate food resources in the community, according to the National Wildlife Federation. In fact, nearly half of the animals protected under the Endangered Species Act are threatened or endangered because of non-native species.
Two famous examples of marine invasives are the veined rapa whelk and the green crab, which have both spread around the world and disrupted shellfish industries, according to the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal. And ballast water is the suspected culprit in transporting the infamous freshwater zebra mussel from European waters to the Great Lakes, where it has spread rapidly and wreaked both economic and environmental havoc.
As problematic as invasive species may be, they are just one of many threats facing the Arctic. Shipping invites other risks, like noise pollution and collisions, while industrial fishing, oil and gas exploration, and pollution also threaten to disrupt Arctic ecosystems.
Oceana has been campaigning to protect the Arctic since its founding. Oceana has contributed to the development and implementation of the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, and is working with scientists and policy makers to advocate for effective shipping strategies. Oceana has several offices open in the Arctic region, and simultaneously works to address all threats facing the Arctic. In recent years, Shell retreated from Arctic drilling in both 2013 and 2014, and in 2009, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) voted to stop industrial fishing expansion in all U.S. waters north of the Bering Strait—both victories for Oceana and the Arctic. Click here to learn more about our efforts.