The Barents Sea contains one of Europe’s last large, clean and relatively undisturbed marine ecosystems. The Barents Sea covers an area of approximately 1.6 million km2, has an average depth of ca. 230 m, and a maximum depth of about 500 m at the western end of Bear Island Trough. Its topography is characterized by troughs and basins, separated by shallow bank areas. The Barents Sea is divided into the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the Norwegian EEZ (agreed since 2010). An EEZ around Svalbard was claimed by Norway in 1977 and is disputed by Russia.
The extremely high primary production of the Barents sea supports a rich biological diversity including some of the world’: most numerous colonies of seabirds such as puffin and guillemot, rich seafloor communities with kelp-forests numerous deep water coral reefs and a unique variety of marine mammals such as walrus, bowhead whales and polar bears.
Now, the unique values of the Barents Sea, are threatened by potentially extremely damaging activity: Oil and gas: development. Harsh climatic condition: and short and simple food webs make this marine ecosystem particularly sensitive to impacts such as pollution from chemicals and oil. A large oil spill would cause dramatic consequences to the wildlife in this area, such as seabirds, mammals and fish-stocks.
The petroleum industry is eager to get access to the fossil resources in the Barents sea. Before any new petroleum development is allowed in this fragile arctic ecosystem, it is extremely important to practise the "conservation first’-principle. Areas containing natural resources that are most valuable and sensitive to negative effects of oil and gas-operations must be set aside as petroleum-free zones to protect their biodiversity and productivity for the future.
Threads to the Barents Sea ecosystem
The Barents Sea ecosystem has been strongly influenced by fishing and the hunting of marine mammals. More recently, human activities include transportation of goods, oil and gas, tourism, and aquaculture. In recent years interest has focused on the likely response of the Barents Sea ecosystem to future climate change and ocean acidification. Retreating ice edges are opening new grounds for trawling and for transport routes.
There are also apprehensions that storage facilities for radioactive wastes could result in radioactive contamination of the environment, as the Murmansk Region houses more radioactive wastes than any other region in the world.
With respect to the modification of ecosystems, there are concerns that the invasive Red king crab will compete with native species for forage reserves, which could result in the decrease of commercial fish stocks of the Barents Sea. Another problem, linked to oil transportation, is the risk of unintentional introduction of alien species in the ballast water of oil tankers.
Read more about the physical and socio-economic characteristics of the Barents Sea.
Photo taken from Hornøya, uninhabited island in Vardø Municipality in Troms og Finnmark county, Norway. Photo: Arto Vitikka.