Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Arctic Marine Strategic Plan

Reykjavik, 20 October 2003.

Statement by Ambassador Gunnar Palsson
at the Workshop in Support of the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan

It gives me great pleasure to be able, on behalf of the Arctic Council Chairmanship, to welcome all of you - especially those who have come across the ocean - to this workshop.

The first seafarer known to have navigated the North Atlantic gave a rather forbidding account of our surrounding waters. Around 330 B.C., a Greek known as Pytheas of Massalia, told how "beyond Britain there was neither earth, air nor sea, but a mixture of all three ..... something that had the consistency of jellyfish and rendered navigation impossible."

It is a pity that Pytheas probably visited our shores at a time of intense volcanic activity. This would account for the sea of slush. His description set the tone for much curious commentary on our region throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages. Here, at the ultimate edge of the knowable world, the mariner was beset by every tempest of nature. Grotesque and evil monsters, graphically presented by cartographers, lay in wait to destroy him. Beyond the horizon of civilization, the North Atlantic was a Sea of Darkness.

Since that time, man has come far in demystifying his relationship with the ocean. The ocean continues to inspire awe and fear. But it is no longer symbolic of the forces of Chaos. Instead, man has begun to appreciate that the ocean Cosmos is not only the source of all life, but also the very basis of his well-being.

If this seems commonplace, let us recall that it is only in the last quarter of a century that marine issues have moved to centerstage in the international arena. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which entered into force in 1994, crowned efforts that had been ongoing since the end of the Second World War to regulate the ocean and its resources. Another milestone was reached with the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, which set up the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and put an end to the mostly sporadic and ad hoc way international environmental problems had until then been dealt with. Still, it was only with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 that the ocean environment was given the prominence it deserves. A year following the Johannesburg Summit, which reviewed progress made over the previous decade, we are still carrying the torch from Rio and coming to grips with the complex issues, including marine issues, set out in its plan of implementation, Agenda 21.

This relatively recent international focus on the oceans has - pardon the cliché - brought about a "sea change" in attitudes. We now recognize the role of the ocean as a source of food security and livelihoods. Even at a time of telecommunications and instant internet-contacts, the oceans remain the main conduit of material interaction between nations. Ninety percent of world trade tonnage is transported by ships. Oceans are a key element of biodiversity. They play a vital role in climate change, through, among other things, rising sea-temperature, diminishing ice-cover, changes in salinity, as well as ocean and atmospheric circulation.

At the same time, our eyes are opening to the growing strains on the oceans, due to overharvesting and land-based activities. As world population, world economy and world trade have grown, so has the demand for marine and coastal resources. We can no longer look at the ocean as either a limitless source of bounty or a bottomless garbage dump. We realize that our actions have consequences and that we all share responsibility for managing the oceans} resources.

This also applies in the Arctic. The Arctic region is predominantly a marine area, where living marine resources support large parts of the population, indigenous and non-indigenous. In addition, the Barents Sea, the Northeast Atlantic and the Bering Sea are some of the most important seas for commercial fisheries in the world. The Bering Sea, to take one example, provides roughly half of all fish consumed in the United States. The Arctic is rich in oil and gas, as well as freshwater resources. In addition, the Arctic Ocean, the Labrador Sea and the Greenland Sea drive the deep circulation of the world's oceans.

Inevitably, therefore, the Arctic Council has been and will remain seized with the marine environment. The Council}s working group on the Protection of the Marine Environment (PAME) was specifically established to address marine issues. Iceland is honoured to host the working group}s secretariat. Other Arctic Council working groups also contribute to our work on the oceans in various ways.

In this country, we like to say that while land separates people, the oceans connect them. Through the sea we are all, in a manner of speaking, neighbours. The interconnectedness of coastal communities and marine life in general is certainly one reason why an integrated approach to the marine environment is needed. It is also what the Johannesburg Summit called for. The Summit confirmed the global importance of the marine environment, but also recognized the important contribution regional fora can make in governing the oceans. As an independent partner to UNEP}s Regional Seas Programme, the Arctic Council has contributed to the protection of the marine environment. Time has now come for the Council to examine its marine role in a wider, long-term context. This was recognized by Ministers in Inari last year, when they decided to develop a strategic plan for the protection of the marine environment.

It is the task that you, the participants in this workshop, will be grappling with over the next two days. We are in the early stages and an Arctic Marine Strategy has not taken shape. No one here underestimates the challenge ahead of us. But seen from an Arctic Council viewpoint, there can be little doubt that what we are about to embark on concerns not only the lives and the livelihoods of people inhabiting the Arctic. It also has the potential of pointing the way for others, in how to approach the question of the oceans in a global as well as in a regional context. I like to take this opportunity to thank the PAME Chairman, Davíð Egilsson and the Executive Secretary, Soffía Guðmundsdóttir, for the work they have done in setting up this workshop. I am also grateful to our Canadian co-hosts, Cris Cuddy, Maureen Copley, Renée Sauve and others who have born the brunt of preparing the workshop with our Icelandic team.

Anyone with only ten minutes at his disposal will necessarily focus on the big picture. So let me leave you with the following thought. We are told that life began in the oceans some 2000 to 3000 million years ago. We are also informed that the earth is unique in our solar system, as no other planet has liquid water. This helps us put the subject of our workshop in a helpful perspective. The oceans we have been given in trust are a precious gift and possibly exceptional in the universe as we know it. Let us therefore take care of them. As a former Judge at the International Court of Justice once put it: "Good planets are hard to find."

I wish you success and enjoyment over the coming days.


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