Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs)
published: 12 Jun 2015
Coast of Western and Northern Novaya Zemlya
The coast of western and northern Novaya Zemlya in the Barents Sea is a highly productive marine area based on a fluctuating polar front zone and marginal ice zone. Atlantic and Arctic water masses meet here and form the polar front, which is characterized by strong gradients in both temperature and salinity, and its position fluctuates along the eastern Barents Sea, thus accounting for the enhanced productivity of the entire coast off western Novaya Zemlya. Another feature supporting high productivity is a marginal ice zone, which moves in the course of a season in the same area. The area provides feeding grounds for common species of Barents Sea pinnipeds and ceatceans as well as breeding grounds for bearded (Erignathus barbatus) and ringed (Phoca hispida) seals. The system of shore leads and drift ice up along the west coast of Novaya Zemlya is supposed to constitute a spring migration route for beluga of the Kara stock and possibly for Atlantic walrus. The high productivity of this marine area supports the largest seabird colonies in the North-East Atlantic, including a large breeding population of common eiders. Rare and threatened species/habitats include staging and moulting grounds for the threatened Steller's eider and longtailed duck (Speers and Laughlin, 2010). Benthic biomass in some places exceeds 1000 g/m2 at the western shore, and the area thus serves as an important feeding ground for Atlantic walruses. In winter the marginal ice zone, polynyas and leads off the west coast of Novaya Zemlya are important wintering areas for seabirds (Krasnov et al., 2011) and polar bears.
The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA IIc) report on Arctic marine areas of heightened ecological significance identified the marine areas around Western Novaya Zemlya as an area of heightened ecological significance that meets the International Maritime Organization (IMO) ecological criteria for particularly sensitive sea area (PSSAs) (AMAP/CAFF/SDWG, 2013). The IUCN/NRDC Workshop to Identify Areas of Ecological and Biological Significance or Vulnerability in the Arctic Marine Environment (Speer and Laughlin, 2011) also identified the “Novaya Zemlya” as meeting nearly all CBD criteria. It is noted that, the western waters around Novaya Zemlya constitute a highly productive marine area that supports the largest seabird colonies in the North-East Atlantic, including a large breeding population of common eiders. It represents an area of high biodiversity for zooplankton, benthic species, fishes, seabirds, marine mammals. Rare and threatened species/habitats include staging and molting grounds for the threatened Steller's eider and Long-tailed duck, and the northern stock of the East-Atlantic meta-population of Atlantic walrus (Speers and Laughlin, 2010 with additions). As the area off Novaya Zemlya has not been sufficiently studied recently the following description largely follows the WWF Barents Ecoregion biodiversity assessment (Larsen et al., 2003) and Status of the Barents Sea Ecosystem (Stiansen et al. 2009).
The area covers the fjordic coastal zone and the adjacent shelf generally within the 100 m isobath (with the exception of the very northern part of the north island of Novaya Zemlya, where greater depth occurs very close to the shore. This area is located within Russia’s territorial sea and the EEZ.
DISCLAIMER: The designations employed and the presentation of material in this map do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the Secretariat concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.
The general pattern of water circulation (figure 2) is characterized by inflow of relatively warm Atlantic water and coastal water from the west, and inflow of relatively fresh, and cold Arctic water from the north-east. Atlantic and Arctic water masses meet and form the polar front, which is characterized by strong gradients in both temperature and salinity, and its position fluctuates along the eastern Barents Sea, thus accounting for the enhanced productivity of the entire coast off western Novaya Zemlya. Another feature supporting high productivity is a marginal ice zone, which moves in the course of a season in the same area (figure 3). There is large inter-annual variability in ocean climate related to the variable strength of the inflow of Atlantic water and exchange of cold Arctic water, and also due to variable ice conditions. The system of shore leads and drift ice up along the west coast of Novaya Zemlya is supposed to constitute a spring migration route for beluga of the Kara stock and possibly also for walrus. Western Novaya Zemlya holds many fairly large seabird colonies, with thick-billed murre and black-legged kittiwake as the major species. Thick-billed murres perform a swimming migration south along Novaya Zemlya toward the Pechora Sea region (AMAP/CAFF/SDWG, 2013). Primary production, pelagic community and polar cod The effects of the marginal ice zone and local coastal fronts are major drivers of the increased productivity. The model-based distribution of primary production indicates particularly higher values in the coastal zone of Novaya Zemlya compared to the offshore water (Romankevich and Vetrov, 2001). High phytoplankton productivity and accumulation resulting from the circulation pattern leads to increased biomass of zooplankton, including euphausiids (krill). This in turn is associated with high concentrations of immediate predators, primarily polar cod (Boreogadus saida) (Borkin, 1995), whose feeding area includes the coastal water of Novaya Zemlya (figure 4) and of organisms of higher trophic levels, i.e. piscivorous fishes, seabirds and marine mammals. Benthos The area of high benthic biomass coincides with the area with a 20% sea-ice concentration along the Spitsbergen— Medvezhii (Bear) Island — Novaya Zemlya — south-eastern Barents Sea line that can be explained by the enhanced flux of phyto-detritus (Denisenko, Titov, 2003). Even with its eastern position, Novaya Zemlya has a diverse and productive benthic fauna. Biodiversity is particularly high in the extreme north, south, and east of the Matochkin Shar strait, and towards the Kara Gate Strait. Benthic biomass in some places exceeds 1000 g/m2 at the western shore (figure 5). Marine mammals The area provides feeding grounds for common species of the Barents Sea pinnipeds and ceatceans, as well as breeding grounds for bearded (Erignathus barbatus) and ringed (Phoca hispida) seals. For Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), the coastal waters of Novaya Zemlya are particularly important as their feeding grounds are located in the southern portion of the area (figure 6). Seabirds The Barents Sea Region (here defined as the north-eastern part of the Norwegian andGreenland Seas, and the Barents and White Seas) supports some of the largest concentrationsof seabirds in the world (Norderhaug et al., 1977, Anker-Nilssen et al., 2000). About 20 to 25 million seabirds harvest approximately 1.2 million tonnes of biomass annually from the area(Barrett et al. 2002). Western Novaya Zemlya along with Norwegian mainland and Spitsbergen are the three main breeding areas, supporting more than 80% of the total breeding populations in the region (figure 7). Brunnich’s guillemots and kittiwakes account for the main populations in the Novaya Zemlya.A large population of common eiders breed on western Novaya Zemlya, as well. The waters off Novaya Zemlya are critical habitats for seabirds, providing feeding grounds from spring to autumn; numerous populations winter along the ice edge. In coastal waters there are staging and moulting grounds for sea ducks, including the endangered long-tailed duck and Steller’s eiders (figure 8).
Novaya Zemlya forms a natural barrier between the Arctic oceans of Europe and Asia. The Barents Sea is influenced by the warm North Atlantic current, while the Kara Sea is a typical Arctic sea, ice-covered for most of the year. Novya Zemlya has a high degree of naturalness, as vast areas are virtually, or completely, intouched by human activities. It is an important denning and nursery area for polar bears. Belugas (white whales) summer in the Kara Sea, migrating through three relatively narrow “channels” on their way to the important western wintering grounds on the Barents Sea coast: the Kara gate to the south, the Matochkin Strait between the northern and southern islands, and around Mys Zhelaniya to the very north. The same passages are also used by other marine mammals, such as the walrus. Six walrus haul-outs are known along the western and northern shores of Novaya Zemlya, but the number is probably higher. Species and biotopes are still in a very natural state as a result of the lack of human-induced disturbance or degradation outside some very minor locations. The area has a variety of species, both benthic and fish, compared to similar Arctic habitats elsewhere. The Zhelaniya Cape as well as the straits are ecologically interesting migration corridors between the Arctic Kara Sea and the Atlantic-influenced Barents Sea. Current threats: Nuclear waste. Novaya Zemlya was a nuclear testing ground from 1954 to 1990. No elevated levels of radioactivity are detectable today, except for sediments in Chernaya Bay, an underwater testing area. Disturbance. Former inhabitants and visitors to the islands had a massive impact on seabird colonies close to settlements (hunting, egg collection). Today, only a few military sites are inhabited. On the other hand these are rather built-up, with dense local road networks, harbours and military installations. Military presence is likely to cause impacts locally, particularly on Gusinaya Zemlya (“Goose Land”). Pollution from the petroleum sector. Oil and gas development in the eastern Barents Sea constitutes a threat both during the present exploratory phase and in future development phases. Different projects under development will bring offshore oil-drilling platforms and oil tanker traffic. Oil spills in ice-covered waters during winter will have adverse effects through the “absorption” of oil in the ice pack and consequent release of the oil during spring and summer. Pollution. Due long-range transport and biomagnification of persistent organic pollutants (particularly PCBs), pollution is a problem for species at the top of food chains. Climate change. Likely to cause notable changes in the local distribution of species and habitats.
AMAP/CAFF/SDWG, 2013. Identification of Arctic marine areas of heightened ecological and cultural significance: Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) IIc. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo. 114 pp. Bakken V., Cherenkov A.E., Gavrilo M.V., Koryakin A.S., Krasnov J. (Yu). V., Nikolaeva N.G., Porkovskaya I.V., Semashko V.Yu., Tertitski G.M. 2000. Seabird colony databases of the Barents Sea region and the Kara Sea // Norsk Polarinstitut Rapportserie, 115: 1–78. Borkin I.V. 1995. Ichthyofauna. Arctic cod. In: Habitats and ecosystems of Novaya Zemlya (archipelago and shelf). Apatity: Kola Science Centre of Russian Academy of Sciences, pp. 121–132. (In Russian). Denisenko S.G., Titov O.V. 2003. Distribution of zoobenthos and primary plankton production in the Barents Sea. Okeanologia, 43 (1): 78–88. (In Russian). Krasnov Yu.V., Gavrilo M.V., Spiridonov V.A. 2011. Sea ice biotopes of southeastern Barents and the White seas. In: V. Spiridonov, M. Gavrilo, N. Nikolaeva, E. Krasnova (eds) Atlas of the Marine and Coastal Biodiversity of the Russian Arctic. Moscow, WWF Russia Publication, pp. 30–32. Larsen T., Boltunov A., Denisenko N., Denisenko S., Gavrilo M., Mokievsky V., Nagoda D., Spiridonov V., Quillfeldt C. von and the participants at the St. Petersburg biodiversity workshop 12-13 May 2001. 2003. The Barents Sea Ecoregion. A biodiversity assessment. Oslo, WWF, 150 p. Romankevich E.A., Vetrov A.A. 2001. Carbon cycle in the Arctic seas of Russia. Moscow, Nauka, 301 p. (In Russian). Speer L., Laughlin T. (eds) 2011. IUCN/NRDC Workshop to Identify Areas of Ecological and Biological Significance or Vulnerability in the Arctic Marine Environment, La Jolla, California. 02-04 November 2010. 37 p. Stiansen J.E., Korneev O., Titov O., Arneberg P. (eds), Filin A., Hansen J.R., Hшines Е., Marasaev S. (co-eds) 2009. Joint Norwegian_Russian Environmental Status Report (2008) on the Barents Sea Ecosystem. Part II — Complete report. IMR/PINRO Joint Report Series, 2009(3). Bergen: Institute of Marine Research. — 375 p.
Areas described as meeting EBSA criteria that were considered by the Conference of the Parties
C1: Uniqueness or rarity Medium
The area supports one of the biggest seabird colonies in the North-East Atlantic.
C2: Special importance for life-history stages of species High
The area’s high productivity makes it an important feeding and breeding place for polar cod and, respectively marine colonial birds breeding in the colonies of Novaya Zemlya, which, along with the Spitsbergen seabird colonies, are the largest in the Barents Sea region. Important breeding grounds for the large population of common eiders. In winter the marginal ice zone, polynyas and leads off the west coast of Novaya Zemlya are important wintering areas for seabirds (Krasnov et al., 2011) and polar bears. Important feeding grounds for Minke whales.
C3: Importance for threatened, endangered or declining species and/or habitats No information
Some rare or endangered species occur in the area (i.e., Steller’s eider staging areas), which is also important for Atlantic walrus haul-outs; polar bear feeding areas located off the north island, but more information is needed in order to rank this area against this particular criterion.
C4: Vulnerability, fragility, sensitivity, or slow recovery Medium
Significant aggregations of breeding, feeding and wintering seabirds make the area vulnerable to large- scale offshore human activities, such as oil and gas exploration, production and transportation with a potential threat of oil spills.
C5: Biological productivity High
The polar front zone and marginal ice zone fluctuating across the area in the course of the year are features that account for its high bioproductivity. The area supports high numbers of breeding and feeding seabirds and foraging Minke whales, based on schooling fishes. Available data indicate enhanced benthic biomass off western Novaya Zemlya. (Stiansen et al., 2009).
C6: Biological diversity No information
Little data are available for the low trophic level diversity in the coastal areas. Most of sampling in the last decades has been conductedbeyond the 12-mile zone of Novaya Zemlya.
C7: Naturalness Medium
Vast areas are undisturbed by human presence. Apart from military bases, only single locations on the southern shores have historically been settled by humans. Novaya Zemlya has been under military administration since nuclear test sites were conducted in 1954. For all practical purposes, the armed forces are still in command of the archipelago. As a consequence, ecosystems have remained fairly undisturbed, but seabird colonies were overexploited in the mid-20th century and were also affected by overfishing on the wintering grounds; the long-range transport of pollutants presents a potential threat.