BL16 - Page 25

he pomarine jaeger
sounds like a cocktail,
but is in fact a gull with
a gruesome feeding habit.
Its modus operandi is ‘kleptoparasitic’: Klepto, because nearly
all its food intake is stolen, often
in mid-air, from unsuspecting
red-legged kittiwakes; and
parasitic because, while flying, it
targets, extracts and recovers fish
that other innocent gulls have
already swallowed.
That fish is often young Arctic
cod, found in nursery grounds
amid the nooks and crannies of
the sea-ice cover on the Arctic
Ocean. This relationship between
seabirds and fish is just one
example of what may be the
world’s most overlooked, least
understood habitat. Every one of
the billions of ice floes that form,
float and melt on the Arctic Ocean
is home to trillions of animals,
plants, and even-more-important
microbes that underpin this
unique ecosystem. And just as the
human clearance of rainforests
reduces habitat, jeopardising
species survival and the function
of the broader ecosystem, so the
human-induced contribution to
melting Arctic sea ice threatens its
dependent species and ecosystem.
The pomarine jaeger was a
favourite aboard ‘Arctic Mission’,
an exploratory voyage that I led
in 2017, taking two 50ft sailing
vessels, without icebreakers,
into the North Pole’s international
waters. However, the issue
became all too clear to me in 2003
as I made my way, solo and
without resupply, from Canada
to the North Pole. It was only
because I had the clothing and
equipment necessary to cross
occasional stretches of open water
between the ice floes that I was
able to complete my journey. Of
the 850 hours spent hauling my
sledge northwards, more than 30
were spent swimming from floe
to floe. While the psychological
stress of each such crossing soon
faded from my memory, the
cumulative effect of these acute
experiences was to transform my
understanding of the scale of
We need to create the world’s largest
wildlife reserve to protect the
ecosystems at risk in the Arctic
A r c t i c e x p l o r e r,
advocate and
founder of Arctic
Mission and 90º
change on the Arctic Ocean – and
therefore the challenges faced by
the region’s wildlife, struggling to
survive and breed in a shrinking
habitat. All too soon, I suspect, we
will face challenges of our own.
When I began my life on the
Arctic Ocean’s sea-ice crust 25
years ago, public perception was
that the region was redundant
and lifeless. But ‘sea ice’ is an
oxymoron. The salts in sea water
cannot freeze. Instead, sea ice
forms a complex honeycomb
structure, with the salts extruded
through the micro-channels over
time. Microbes, zooplankton
(drifting animals) and
phytoplankton (drifting plants)
inhabit these channels.
We all know that polar bears
use the sea ice as a hunting
platform. But all three sub-species
of walrus also depend on sea ice
for their rests between seabed
sorties for invertebrates and
clams. And six seal species –
hooded, ringed, ribbon, harp,
bearded and spotted – depend on
it, as do some family groups of the
world’s largest dolphin – the orca
or killer whale. And the most
loquacious of all whale, the white
beluga, feed around its margins
alongside the spiral-toothed
narwhal – source of the mythical
unicorn. The only seabed-feeding
whale, the grey whale, also
depends on it. Even the world’s
second largest animal, the
bowhead whale, weighing up to
100,000 kg, depends for its vast
food intake on the prolific
plankton hosted by the sea ice.
That sea-ice cover once created
a de facto nature reserve for the
entire Central Arctic Ocean,
keeping it out of bounds to
commercial fishing boats, seabed
mining platforms and cargo ships.
Then NASA’s satellites began
revealing the shocking rapidity of
ice loss. By summer 2012, 40 per
cent of the Central Arctic Ocean
region was ice-free, and accessible
to ships. Inevitably, geopolitical
activity has soared: The potential
for natural resource extraction is
significant, and a new global
shipping route is emerging
between the Pacific Rim countries
(via the Bering Strait and North
Pole), Europe and North America.
‘Sea-ice cover’, is not an
accurate term. The fuller reality is
a ‘floating ice-reef ecosystem’,
which is at risk not just from
ice-loss, but the human kleptoparasites it unleashes. That is why
my mission now, through the
newly-formed organisation 90°
North, is to protect this ecosystem
from additional human stressors
by enlisting the United Nations to
deliver a treaty for the world’s
largest wildlife reserve in the
international waters of the Pole.

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