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AECO statement on polar bear incident in Svalbard

Saturday July 28, a polar bear was shot dead in Svalbard after attacking a cruise ship’s polar bear guard. The guard sustained moderate injuries. The incident is being investigated by the Governor of Svalbard.

Svalbard, and the high Arctic in general, is a region of the world where wildlife habitats and human settlements overlap. As a result, there are encounters between polar bears and humans. Thanks to strict safety protocols and regulations, polar bear attacks are extremely rare. However, such attacks sometimes occur and may have tragic outcomes.

Expedition cruising is part of the tourism in Svalbard. Most expedition cruise operators in Svalbard are members of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO). The operator involved in the polar bear incident this weekend is one of the few expedition cruise operators in Svalbard that is not a member of AECO, but AECO would nevertheless take the opportunity to underline that the Arctic expedition cruise industry takes polar bear safety extremely seriously.

From AECO’s point of view, it is very sad when an incident leads to human injuries and the death of a polar bear. AECO’s objective is to ensure that expedition cruises and tourism in the Arctic is carried out with the utmost consideration for the vulnerable, natural environment, local cultures and cultural remains, as well as the challenging safety hazards at sea and on land. Keeping passengers safe and ensuring non-disturbance of Arctic wildlife is essential for AECO’s members.

Tourism is an important industry in many Arctic areas. This is also the case in Svalbard where the Norwegian government has pointed out tourism as a developing area. A year-round land-based and summer sea-based tourism brings more than 100 000 visitors to Svalbard every year.

Svalbard is a popular and well-regulated tourism destination, and incidents involving the cruise industry are rare. Expedition cruise tourism in Svalbard is subject to strict regulations and is closely monitored by the Governor of Svalbard. In accordance with Article 30 of the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act, it is prohibited to lure, pursue or otherwise seek out polar bears in such a way as to disturb them or expose either bears or humans to danger. The Governor of Svalbard enforces this law and investigates incidents where polar bears may have been disturbed.

AECO has put in place several guidelines and standards that go beyond legal requirements to further advance safe and environmentally friendly cruise tourism. AECO’s members are subject to a strict non-disturbance principle when it comes to wildlife. AECO has developed mandatory Polar bear guidelines that provide detailed instructions on how to avoid encounters with and disturbance of bears. In accordance with AECO’s Polar bear guidelines, AECO’s members should always keep a distance and ensure that polar bears are undisturbed. It is also required to have a plan and be ready to act to avoid encounters by implementing safety measures beforehand. Before undertaking shore excursions, the operator is required to check out the terrain, do reconnaissance and look out for polar bears before any passenger comes ashore. Members are also required to establish a polar bear watch system and stay in places where there is good visibility of the surrounding area.

AECO is also a forum for exchanging and advancing best practices on polar bear safety through, incident reporting, information sharing, member meetings and education, including field staff conferences and AECO’s field staff online assessment.

AECO will continue to work with regulators, research institutions, local communities and environmental organizations to ensure that AECO’s guidelines and best practices contribute to setting the highest possible operating standards for Arctic cruise tourism.

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