New York (January 19, 2017) –  WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) commends the International Maritime Organization and partners for the development and implementation of the “Polar Code,” a binding international agreement that will help ensure the safety of mariners operating in polar waters, and the protection of both the Arctic and Antarctic’s marine environment from the risks of vessel activities.

After over two decades in development by a variety of working groups, the Polar Code came into force on January 1st of 2017.

“The Polar Code is very good news for the Arctic marine environment,” said Dr. Martin Robards, Director of the WCS Arctic Beringia Program. “The reduction of threats to these expansive and remote areas from vessel discharges, or risks from spills due to accidents, is essential for the health of wildlife and the food security of the local indigenous communities.”

Polar regions, including the waterways of the Arctic and Antarctic support a vibrant diversity of avian, mammal, and other species, that in some areas come together in incredible aggregations. The seas, coastal areas, and straits of Arctic Beringia, for instance, serve as migratory corridors and destinations for approximately 17,000 bowhead whales, more than 150,000 walruses, and many other marine mammals.

The new agreement will help ensure that ships traveling in the Arctic and Antarctic are adequately constructed for the demanding conditions of polar waters. The code will help establish a safer operating environment for vessels traveling in the polar regions while minimizing the possibility of accidents at sea, a critically important factor in regions where the capacity to react to events such as oil spills is limited. The code will also prohibit or strictly limit the discharge of garbage and fluids from vessels in polar waters.

The WCS Arctic Beringia Program works with a wide assemblage of federal, state, and indigenous partners in the Arctic in an effort to help minimize the effects of development on the region’s wildlife populations. For example, researchers from WCS are working with local partners to assess the overlap of marine mammal feeding or migration areas and the vessel routes that may traverse them. The documentation of this information can help inform the voyage planning of vessels as required under the “Polar Code.” This is particularly important at “choke points,” areas where marine mammals and vessels are constrained in space and time, such as Bering Strait or the Northwest Passage routes across northern Canada.

“The Polar Code provides opportunities to plan vessel operations in such a manner that they minimize the risk of fatal collisions with the large numbers of whales that traverse this region during summer, especially in biologically vital corridors such as the Bering Strait” said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, Director for WCS’s Ocean Giants Program.