A ban on motorized traffic in three areas heavily populated by seals and polar bears will be in effect from March 15 to June 1, The Governor of Svalbard announced Thursday after evaluating often highly critical comments from a wide variety of local interests from tourism to university research that use the areas.
The ban applies to portions of Van Mijenfjorden, Tempelfjorden and Billefjorden (see maps at right), except for designated areas where those on motorized vehicles can cross the sea ice as quickly and directly as possible, Kristin Heggelund, the governor’s chief environmental advisory, said in a statement summarizing the regulations.
“We have considered all proposals received,” she said. “The areas where motorized traffic is desired are close to glacier fronts, and are the areas that are most used by ringed seals and polar bears. Opening up for motorized traffic here will not be in line with the purpose behind the temporary regulation and will not protect these species from disturbance as the purpose of the regulation is environmental protection.”
Some modifications were made to the draft proposal after it was published for comment in January and exemptions for special needs can be sought. The most significant is nearly all of Billefjorden, which provides access to Pyramiden, is classified as a limited access area, whereas the draft prohibited access except for a small strip of sea ice offering a direct crossing to Pyramiden was exempted.
“It is clarified in the regulations it is permitted with necessary safety stops,” the governor’s summary adds.
A total of 24 responses to the original proposal were received from entities including Visit Svalbard (and numerous large and small tour operators), The University Centre in Svalbard, the Longyearbyen Hunting and Fishing Association, the Polar X film production company, and the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Concerns include negative economic impacts due to activity limits, unnecessarily restricting locals who are knowledgeable and few in number compared to tourists, impairing science projects that often are intended to further the wildlife/environmental knowledge the governor bases decisions on, and possibly unintended negative consequences/hazards by restricting access to narrow areas and urging a mindset of rapid passage.
Since the ban is occurring at the peak of the spring tourism season – and is a primary factor the governor has imposed similar bans the past three years, due to people illegally venturing close enough to wildlife to disrupt their activities – the largest number of responses came from companies and individuals in that industry.
Visit Svalbard, representing 70 members including eight tour companies with regular trips in the affected areas, argued allowing access near glacier faces is an important part of excursions. It also noted it has developed an ongoing set of environmental awareness measures members must follow and there should be “differentiation of traffic between different user groups.”
Officials at UNIS and the Norwegian Polar Institute stated they will likely need to set up short-term research spots in restricted areas, acknowledging it’s acceptable if a waiver can be sought. The institute also noted its data shows short stops during crossings have not been shown as being more disruptive and it’s important safety during travel be priorized.
“A straight line across the ice is not necessarily the best way to complete a crossing,” the statement submitted by the institute notes. “Routes should be selected from the terrain of the snow. Areas on the fast ice where frozen icebergs occur should be avoided as these are usually areas that have a concentrated occurrence of throwing cavities for ringed seals. The weight from snowmobiles can cause these holes to collapse and the seals that stay there to be broken.”
Some of the harshest and most broad criticism was expressed by Jason Roberts, owner of the film production company Polar X, whose experience over many years includes high-profile feature movie and TV projects. Roberts, who some years ago was penalized for violations of the governor’s policies including illegal transport and the filming of a man in a cage attacked by a polar bear, argues the Norwegian Polar Institute’s data is “so weak that it cannot be used as an argument in this context” and “we must question the motives of the governor’s constant undermining of rights and privileges of local people and local companies.”
“This proposal will lead to a massive negative effect on the operation of PolarX and our customers,” Roberts wrote. “Firstly it will put the safety of personnel in unnecessary danger. Secondly, it will lead to an extreme loss of income and large additional costs.We hereby notify that all lost income, any additional costs and future losses due to the implementation of this proposal will constitute a legal basis for applying for compensation.”
The Longyearbyen Hunting and Fishing association, which says it represents 850 members who are Svalbard residents, echoed a complaint by Roberts that “we have been responding to this consultation for several years without being able to see our input, on behalf of our members or permanent residents of Svalbard, are taken into account or heard.”
“It is an unfortunate development to close frozen fjords to permanent residents who have the knowledge and expertise to travel, as they are also good ambassadors for Svalbard nature, as well as good observers,” the association’s statement notes. “And in that sense a resource for communicating what is happening in relation to climate change and general changes in the areas. We also see that the knowledge base behind the decision seems to be subjective, and based on one perception of local traffic that we do not recognize ourselves in.”