Protecting Polar Bears With A Large Marine Ecosystem Approach
Polar bears have, for better or worse, become symbolic in the quest for global conservation: this is partly because of their nature as charismatic megafauna, and partly because the health of their populations is a good reflection of the conditions of northern climates more generally. Polar bear habitat is circumpolar and comprises a range of countries including Canada, the Russian Federation, Greenland, Norway, and the U.S., and any successful effort to protect them necessitates an international cooperative approach. Most management plans for polar bears have focused on “harvest limits” related to hunting them, and those plans have generally been limited to terrestrial zones. However, as climate change is “likely to result in large-scale habitat alterations in the Arctic,” there is an increasing need to make a plan that is flexible and looks towards the future.
For the last 40 years, the multinational “Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears” has been the best attempt at “applying ecosystem-based principles to polar bear issues.” However, the agreement has “fallen short” of providing a framework that can ensure protecting of polar bears given current challenges. As an alternative, this paper proposes a “Large Marine Ecosystem” strategic approach; LMEs are, generally speaking, huge swaths of land, approximately 200,000 square kilometers, and can encompass “coastal zones, continental shelves, and coastal currents.” There are currently 66 LMEs recognized in international circles “as a means to achieve ecosystem-based, multi-country management” goals. For polar bears specifically, the authors note there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach but there are already 14 arctic LMEs that contain “whole or parts of polar bear subpopulations,” which puts them in a good position to be helped through this approach. Further to various issues that can be addressed by LMEs, such as the populations of other other animals that polar bears prey upon, the authors note there are also socioeconomic and governance issues that would need to be factored in.
The authors suggest that the LME approach could an appropriate way of addressing issues of polar bear survival, as long as there is cooperation among the nations that are comprised in these zones. They also suggest that, given the rapidly changing climate, these plans should be evaluated and revised every three years to remain relevant.