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The Sea of Okhotsk: a billion dollar ecosystem

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This article is reprinted from The Circle 4.14. Dr. Eduard Shirkov is the head of Laboratory of Environmental Economics Research, Kamchatka Branch of the Pacific Institute of Geography.

The Sea of Okhotsk boasts an area of roughly 1.6 million square kilometers, water volume of more than 1300 cubic kilometers, and a coastline over 10 thousand kilometers long. The average depth of this remarkable body of water ranges from 820 meters, to a maximum depth of 3916 meters. In terms of natural resources, these features combine to make the Sea of Okhotsk one of the largest and richest shelf seas in the world.  Worth billions of dollars in ecosystem services, and critically important to human life,  it needs and merits protection from over-exploitation.

The natural resources potential of the Sea of Okhotsk is both a unique and considerable piece of the natural capital of Russia.


The waters of the Sea of Okhotsk create their own unique water masses due to the varying widths and depths of the Kuril Islands, which border the sea. Because of the high differentiation of hydrological factors and climate, a full water exchange between the Sea of Okhotsk and the ocean requires many years, creating unique ecosystems with very high biodiversity. The northern parts of the Sea predominantly contain ecosystems with Arctic species of flora and fauna, while the rest of the Sea feature boreal ecosystems.
The natural resources potential (NRP) of the Sea of Okhotsk is both a unique and considerable piece of the natural capital of Russia. It accounts for more than half of the far-eastern and nearly one quarter of all Russian fish catches. Due to its tidal sea influx, it is also an area of huge hydroenergy potential, again, unique in its scale, and a significant source on a national scale of expected hydrocarbon resources. In addition, the largely undisturbed ecosystems of the Sea of Okhotsk provide a stable generation of ecosystem services, critically important for human beings. But paramount to all of these benefits generated by the Sea of Okhotsk are the provisioning services derived from exploitation of bioresources, and its regulating effect through carbon sequestration and assimilation of other industrial and agricultural pollutants.


It should be noted, however, that the Sea of Okhotsk is the coldest of the Russian Far Eastern seas. The cold period (when the average daily temperature is below zero) lasts from 120 days in the south to 220 days in the north. A larger part of the Sea is covered with ice for up to 7 months annually. In January, the temperatures drop to minus 20-25 °C. Severe and frequent storms, icing factor, the lack of natural shelters for ships, as well as the high seismicity of the area pose serious risks for navigation and operation of offshore engineering facilities.
The maximal and stable level of the economic rent being held from NRP exploitation over a long time period can be taken as the main criterion of environmental and economic efficiency of natural resources management in a specific, ecologically isolated region. In the course of complex estimation of NRP elements of the Sea of Okhotsk, carried out by the scientists of the Kamchatka Branch of the Pacific Institute of Geography, the capitalized rent value of natural capital of the region is estimated at 454 billion US dollars. Extraction and utilization of all known Okhotsk hydrocarbons decrease this rent value by 134 billion US dollars. In addition, oil pollutants (without taking into consideration probable serious accidents) decrease NRP rent value that come from fish resources and relevant regulatory ecosystem services by another 39 billion US dollars”.

Modern technologies for offshore hydrocarbon exploration and transportation, and existing legal and economic mechanisms for nature management do not offset these decreases in value. Therefore the compromise solution for this conflict lies in the area of spatial specialization or zoning of marine nature management in the north-eastern and south-western parts of the Sea of Okhotsk, two areas which are different both in the structure of resource potential and conditions of their exploitation.

Zoning of the Sea of Okhotsk according to resource specialization of its areas can be done according to potential conflicts of parallel exploitation of marine bioresources and hydrocarbons; conditions of exploitation; and existing fishery zoning. Taking into account both factors, the boundary between resource-specialized zones can be drawn as an extension to the North-West of the existing boundary between fishing subzones 05.1 и 05.3 (Fig. 1). Two-thirds of the biological potential of the Sea of Okhotsk would then be concentrated in the north-eastern area—including the Western-Kamchatka shelf (Fig. 2). However, two-thirds of hydrocarbon potential would be concentrated in the south-western area (Fig. 3).

Potential losses of natural capital value caused by existing practices of nature management in the Sea of Okhotsk can be reduced by $93 billion through integrated marine management. Only through these measures will it be possible to conserve the highest bio-productivity of the north-western area of the Sea of Okhotsk, including the Western Kamchatka shelf, nominated as an Ecologically or Biologically Sensitive Marine Area under the Convention for Biological Diversity.

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