Industry Responds to Polar Bear Incident
Hapag Lloyd Cruises and the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) have each issued a statement in response to the polar bear shooting that occurred on July 29. The bear was shot dead in Svalbard after attacking a Hapag Lloyd Cruises' guard during a shore excursion from the MS Bremen.
Hapag Lloyd Cruises issued a statement, saying the shooting was an act of self-defense. “We very much regret this incident. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is very aware of its responsibility when traveling in environmentally-sensitive areas and respects all nature and wildlife.”
To illustrate the situation, Hapag Lloyd Cruises says: “Spitzbergen is a large geographical area, about one and a half times the size of Denmark. Landings are possible only in a few places; these are not there to serve the purpose of polar bear observation, on the contrary: polar bears are only observed from aboard ships, from a safe distance. To prepare for a shore leave, the polar bear guards go ashore in advance after sighting the landing site as a group and without passengers. They then set up a land station and check the area again to make sure that there are no polar bears in sight. As soon as such an animal approaches, the shore leave would be stopped immediately.
“The incident occurred when the four-person polar bear guard team, who are always on board for these expedition cruises as required by law, prepared for a shore leave. One of the guards was unexpectedly attacked by a polar bear that had not been spotted, and he was unable to react himself. As the attempts of the other guards to evict the animal, unfortunately, were not successful, there had to be intervention for reasons of self-defense and to protect the life of the attacked person.”
The AECO statement notes that 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.”
Most expedition cruise operators in Svalbard are members of AECO, but the operator involved in the incident is one of a few exceptions. AECO says its 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.
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,” said the AECO statement. 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 a forum for exchanging and advancing best practices on polar bear safety through, incident reporting, information sharing, member meetings and education. “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.”