The Norwegian government this month has revealed plans to potentially introduce heavy fuel oil (HFO) bans and limit the number of ships permitted to enter the archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean.
Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment says it is also mulling tougher sanctions on the disturbance of polar bears and vessel landings in remote locations. The authority says the rules that are currently in play were established yesteryear.
“If Svalbard is to be preserved as an attractive destination in the future, the traffic must be regulated so that the vulnerable wilderness nature of Svalbard is preserved,” the government said.
Svalbard and Social Security Minister Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde said, “We have mapped the challenges the travel industry poses for the environment, safety and preparedness. Against this background, the government will consider making the heavy oil ban a general ban, as well as imposing size restrictions on ships in the protected areas. The government will also consider the possibility of limiting the scope of tourism activity on the archipelago for emergency and security reasons.”
The government said that every year large cruise ships, which can carry up to several thousand passengers, visit Svalbard’s wilderness areas. It’s concerned that should a ship carrying heavy oil have an accident in the region; the discharge can have “irreversible environmental consequences”, which also pose challenges associated with an oil spill response and cleanup.
“The environment in Svalbard is particularly vulnerable due to climate change, and the burden of increased transport by land and water comes in addition to this. Today’s regulations were drawn up at a time when traffic was significantly less than today, and climate change was at another level.”
Minister of Climate and Environment Ola Elvestuen said it is now necessary to protect the wilderness nature and cultural heritage values of Svalbard from the increased overall burden from both tourism and climate change.
“I will therefore consider several appropriate and targeted measures to protect wildlife, nature and cultural heritage,” Elvestuen remarked.
The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) backed the move, this week saying it supports a strategy that encourages an environmentally friendly, responsible and safe tourism operation in the Arctic.
“AECO believes that an organised and well-managed travel industry is the best way to ensure that Arctic tourism is carried out with the utmost consideration for the vulnerable, natural environment, local cultures and cultural remains, as well as the challenging safety hazards at sea and on land.”
The organisation’s Executive Director Frigg Jørgensen applauded the plan, saying that formalising the ban sends a message to decision makers that it is time to act to protect the Arctic from the risk of heavy fuel oil.
Jørgensen also supported the ship capacity cap. Members of AECO generally operate small- and medium-sized ships of up to 500 guests, but with an average ranging between 150-200.
“We see many benefits of using relatively small vessels. The ships are less reliant on port infrastructure and are able to visit remote sites in a sustainable manner. Smaller passenger groups can also be more manageable for Arctic communities receiving them as visitors,” he said.
Additionally, a recent study from Svalbard indicated that expedition cruise ships on average inject 5.2 times more in local income per passenger compared to conventional cruise tourism.
Norwegian expedition cruise line Hurtigruten welcomed the initiatives by governing bodies. Managing Director for Australia Damian Perry said the sanctions seem to be the only way to regulate and hold less progressive companies accountable.
“Hurtigruten have been in partnership with the Clean Arctic Alliance, fighting for a ban on heavy fuel for years. This year we made a significant leap forward by achieving buy-in across AECO members to ban heavy fuel use in the Arctic.
“However, there are still expedition companies and ships that work outside of AECO that both disregard and are in denial of the impact they have on the destinations that feed their very existence.
“Outside of the select, more progressive expedition companies that are innovating and addressing the issues we still have large ships operating on heavy fuel and large cruise ships bringing mass tourism and overrunning small communities. Therefore we welcome progressive solutions from Norway,” Perry told LATTE.