The Canadian government is in the final stages of drafting its Arctic Policy Framework, a sweeping document that will guide federal strategy across four million square kilometers of Canadian territory.
A key part of the framework will be a commitment to “conserving Arctic biodiversity through science-based decision making.” It’s a laudable promise, but one ultimately doomed to failure. Despite massive financial investments in Arctic research, the size and remoteness of the region has limited scientists who want to study it. Data on Arctic biodiversity is still extremely limited, and if we want to protect polar bears and snowy owls, we will need to do so with limited scientific backing.
In the face of scarce scientific data, enshrining the precautionary principle as a fundamental part of Canada’s Arctic Policy Framework would be a prudent step, signalling that we recognize the limitations of our knowledge and the risks of leaping before we look. Cautiously approaching development in the face of uncertainty is the only way to ensure that we don’t accidentally cause critical damage to fragile Arctic ecosystems. This does not mean that all Arctic development should be halted, only that a lack of data should not be used to rationalize the safety of projects in a region where scientific uncertainty is the norm.
Unfortunately, the extent of scientific uncertainty is huge. A 2013 report by the Arctic Council concluded, “there is a critical lack of essential data and scientific understanding necessary to improve the planning and implementation of biodiversity conservation.” Two recently published studies go further: one demonstrating that we have no environmental samples from huge areas of the Arctic, and the other finding that we haven’t assessed the conservation risk for 85 per cent of Arctic marine fish species due to a lack of basic biological data.
Embedding the precautionary principle in the Arctic Policy Framework would help to protect northern birds, fish and mammals — crucial food sources for Arctic people who still largely rely on harvesting to meet their nutritional needs. It would ensure that Arctic communities are not devastated by unexpected environmental disasters on the lands they have occupied for millenia. It’s far better to be safe than sorry, when Canadian’s food and way of life are at risk.
In fact, Canada and other nations have already acted in a precautionary manner by signing on to the international moratorium on commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean. In 2015, nine countries and the EU agreed that there was insufficient data on fish stocks to permit commercial fishing in this area. For at least 16 years, the central Arctic Ocean will be off-limits while the international community researches and monitors the area. Presumably, collecting these data will allow for the opening of sustainable, well-managed fisheries in the future — but without the science, the risks of rushing into commercial fishing were deemed to be too high.
There is good precedent for a cautionary approach in the Arctic. The precautionary principle is a fundamental component of the OSPAR Convention, a multilateral agreement to protect Arctic and sub-Arctic areas in the Northeast Atlantic. And most of the Canadian Arctic is much more poorly studied than OSPAR territory. For example, while Norway monitors 16 Arctic seabird colonies to international standards, Canada currently only monitors two, despite having one of the world’s largest Arctic seabird populations.
The opening of the $204 million Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Ikaluktutiak (Cambridge Bay) will help to address some of these issues. The station promises to be a world-class research hub in the poorly studied Arctic Archipelago, but even travelling to the research station is prohibitively costly for some, with round trip flights from Ottawa costing up to $11,000 CAD. Emerging technologies, like environmental DNA and improved remote sensing, may also alleviate the need for expensive travel and fieldwork. But currently, the cost of Arctic research has been pegged at eight times higher than comparable research elsewhere on earth, and these high costs will ensure that filling data gaps across the Arctic will take time.
A commitment to science-based decision-making in the Arctic should include a commitment to the precautionary principle. While we should work to address scientific shortcomings and to include Indigenous knowledge in Arctic decision-making, scientific uncertainty will always be the walrus in the room for Arctic development. Not taking this uncertainty seriously risks destroying the unique and beautiful northern landscapes that are at the heart of Canada’s identity.