The project

COOPENOR: Combined effects of Petroleum and the Environment on bivalves from the Norwegian-Russian Arctic

The project is financed by the Norwegian Research Council and the Russian Federation for Basic Research and in collaboration with the EWMA and polarisation projects (see links). Dr Nahrgang (BFE, University of Tromsø) and Dr Bakhmet (IB, Karelian Research Centre, RAS) are the project leaders on the norwegian and russian side respectively.

COOPENOR will enhance the implementation of comparable tools and protocols for marine monitoring within the Norwegian and Russian sectors of the Arctic.

1. characterize basic biology and ecology

2. determine sensitivities to pollutant combined with environmental stresses

3. establish a “toolbox” for environmental management in the Norwegian and Russian Arctic,

4. educate in fundamental and applied modern ecology and ecotoxicology within and for the High North.


The Arctic has recently become a centre of attention with increasing human activities and warming of the climate affecting the marine ecosystem. As Arctic sea ice extent has decreased due to warming temperatures, shipping has increased along the Siberian shelf, and boreal species have extended their distributions further north. At the same time, the oil and gas industry is constantly pushing the boundaries of resource exploration northward within the Arctic shelf seas, enhancing the risk of pollution. In this context of increasing anthropogenic pressure in an ecosystem considered fragile and pristine, there is a need to fill important gaps in knowledge regarding the basic biology of Arctic key species and their sensitivity to a combination of human and environmental stress factors, and to ensure that such new knowledge is implemented in monitoring programmes across the national borders. Blue mussels and Icelandic scallops are considered ideal sentinel species in the coastal and shelf water ecosystems, respectively. Three different locations within the Norwegian and Russian Arctic, the Greenland Sea (Svalbard), the South Barents Sea and the White Sea, all in which the two species occur, will be closely monitored over a full annual cycle to describe spatial and temporal changes in the basic biology of these two selected indicator species, as affected by a variety of physical (e.g. light, temperature, ice cover, salinity, oxygen) and biological (e.g. food availability) factors. Further, at each location, the response to petroleum-related pollution will be studied at specific time points to reflect intra-annual changes in their susceptibility to such stress factors. This project will thus offer a unique and holistic understanding of the biology and tolerance of two important Arctic key species to multiple stresses, including anthropogenic pollution and stress factors related to climate change. A valuable aspect of this work is the creation of a dataset that will be integrated into relevant guideline documents for environmental monitoring at the European level. This project is therefore very relevant for the management of the Arctic environment and its resources in the Norwegian-Russian Barents Sea region. The project aims its attention towards basic and applied scientific questions that are of paramount importance for both understanding effects of climate change in the Arctic as well as environmental monitoring and control of marine pollution, including oil and gas pollution in the Barents Sea. This project includes 4 Norwegian, 5 Russian, 1 USA and 1 French partner Institutions, and includes a dedicated component towards the education and the building of new expertise in areas of strategic importance within basic and applied research.  

The Objectives

The overarching goal of COOPENOR is to provide a new knowledge that will enhance the implementation of comparable tools and protocols for marine monitoring within the Norwegian and Russian sectors of the Arctic. In order to achieve this, we propose to aim our combined efforts on to well-known benthic species that are currently distributed throughout the region and that are commonly considered bioindicator species.

In order to achieve our goal, our project will: (1) characterise the basic biology and ecology of two key bivalve species across different regions of the Arctic, (2) determine their sensitivities to pollutant stress combined with environmental and climatic stress factors across the Barents Sea region, (3) create a “toolbox” of joint methodologies directly applicable for environmental management in the Norwegian and Russian Arctic, and finally (4) educate young scientists in fundamental and applied modern ecology and ecotoxicology within and for the High North.

Some Background

The Arctic marine environment has become the centre of concern for many scientists and sectors, including toxicologists, climatologists and the oil and gas industry. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified the Arctic as being affected by climatic changes faster and with a larger magnitude than any other region on the planet. Impacts forecasted for this region include warming temperatures and changes in ice cover and ocean currents. Some impacts have already been observed, such as thinning of the sea ice sheet, increased river discharge into the Arctic basin, warmer sea surface temperatures and higher inflow of Atlantic water masses. These alterations have the potential to alter species distribution, food web structures, carbon cycles, and transport and uptake of contaminants into and within the Arctic. These alterations also open previously inaccessible regions of the Arctic oceans and shelf seas for industry such as shipping and oil and gas activities. As a result, the borders of oil and gas exploration are constantly pushed northwards and new oil fields are being discovered in the Barents Sea. Presently, on the Norwegian side, oil and gas production is restricted to the southern Barents Sea, but the limits for exploration and production may be moved further North in the future. On the Russian side, these offshore activities are already located in regions that can be seasonally ice covered. Maritime shipping increases significantly along the shelf seas due to the seasonal retreat of sea ice and the opening of the Northern Sea route along the Siberian shelf seas. These regions are still considered very remote and harsh, and sea ice condition may become less predictable and variable from year to year, increasing risks of accidents. Although spill events are quite rare, their effects on the environment can be disastrous and long lasting. Spills are of special concern in coastal and shallow water regions, located in the vicinity of shipping routes and offshore activities, as they are of high ecological (high biodiversity, spawning grounds, feeding areas) and commercial (fisheries, aquaculture, public leisure and tourism) value.

Lack of knowledge of basic biology for good monitoring practices. The existing knowledge on the biology of Arctic marine species and the influence of environmental variables on these processes is often limited or lacking, making it difficult to recognize the combined effects of a changing environment and marine pollution from normal biological responses due to natural seasonal fluctuation in environmental variables. Furthermore, the capacity of organisms to cope with environmental and anthropogenic stresses is largely unknown. A few projects have started to describe the baseline biology and ecology of some marine organisms that could be used as sentinel marine species, such as the blue mussel and the Icelandic scallop, for environmental monitoring in Arctic regions. However, our knowledge is still scarce and is not advancing as rapidly as the rate of industrialisation of the Arctic.

Common practices and sentinel species across the Arctic. Environmental management of the Arctic marine environment needs to be based on a common understanding of the environment and common goals and practices for the management of its resources. Along with an increase in fundamental knowledge of our ecosystems, this implies the use of similar indicator species and a common set of monitoring tools and guidelines across Arctic regions to ensure transferability and comparison. Bivalves are considered good sentinel species for environmental monitoring of pollutants, as they filter large quantities of water and accumulate high levels of contaminants. For instance, blue mussels (Mytilus edulis) have shown high sensitivity to trace metals and oil. This ubiquitous species is commonly used as sentinel species by several monitoring programmes, from the coast of Spain to Norway. Furthermore, several other mussel species that can serve as bioindicators have been reported in the Barents and White Seas  and as far north as Svalbard. The Icelandic scallop (Chlamys islandica) is a circumpolar species found on hard bottom in shallow waters. Although some studies have reported biomarker responses following experimental contamination to petroleum-related compounds, this species has been less studied than mussels in ecotoxicology. Nevertheless, both mussels and the Icelandic scallops are receiving increased attention in the Arctic region as potential indicator species for environmental monitoring.

The project outline

The project is built around 4 work packages, carrying one objective each, and supported by acquired knowledge or identified gaps of knowledge (e.g. through the NRC project ECOBAR). Through Work Package (WP) 1, the project will answer fundamental questions concerning the biology and ecology of commonly used indicator species (mussels and Icelandic scallops), and identify potential geographical/climatic differences at three locations across the Norwegian and Russian Arctic (Figure 1). The three locations are chosen based on both their contrasting environmental characteristics, as well as differences in current anthropogenic impacts (pristine, moderately polluted). These aspects are important for the development of effective environmental monitoring tools and the safe and sound management of the Arctic region in general. The study of the sensitivity of these organisms to a combination of environmental stressors and oil pollution (WP2) will provide insight on the combined effects of climate change and pollution on ecosystems, as well as the ability of organisms to cope with these effects at both regional and microscales. This knowledge will constitute an important basis for defining appropriate tools for environmental monitoring across the Arctic, and will follow and be included in existent European guideline documents (WP3). Finally, the project will play an important role in the exchange of competence and methodologies between Norway and Russia and in the education of early career scientists and students for both the public and private sector in the High North (WP4).

Work Package 1: Characterization of the baseline biology of two bivalves in three Arctic regions

Arctic marine organisms such as bivalves are facing challenging habitats with large seasonal variation in environmental conditions (e.g. food availability, temperature). These organisms show a range of adaptations and compensatory mechanisms to respond to these stresses. The knowledge of the biology of bivalve species in Arctic regions in relation to their environment is critical for their use as sentinel species in environmental monitoring and the use of biomarkers in the assessment of pollution from human activities.

Objective and hypothesis: The main objective is to characterize the biology of mussels and scallops over an entire year, while taking into consideration the seasonal variation in environmental factors and the possible presence of pollutants. The species will be studied on a microscale (e.g. high and low shore mussels, shallow water mussels and scallops) and on a regional scale across the Greenland Sea (GS), Barents Sea (BS) and the White Sea (WS). We hypothesize that spatial and temporal differences in environmental conditions (light, temperature, salinity and oxygen) will affect the biology and physiology (energy storage, growth, reproduction etc.) of bivalves differently. Mapping these differences will improve our current understanding and ability to use the selected species for monitoring purposes and will provide information on how populations vary across the region.

Work Package 2: Sensitivity to pollutant exposure combined with environmental stressors

In recent decades, the scientific community has been debating whether species within the marine Arctic are more sensitive to anthropogenic pollutants than their temperate counterparts due to specific physiological adaptations. This interest arose in parallel to the question formulated by authorities on whether environmental quality criteria and guidelines for temperate areas are sufficiently protective for the Arctic environment. Specific biological traits in Arctic organisms could play a role in their sensitivity to pollutant exposure. Organisms exposed daily or seasonally to strong fluctuations in environmental variables (e.g. temperature, salinity) possess defense mechanisms (behavioural, physiological, etc.) and acclimation capacities, which provide them with higher tolerance to stress in general. A similar notion was reported by Rice et al. as early as 1979, as he found that intertidal animals exposed to strong fluctuations in environmental variables had higher tolerance to pollutants compared to other benthic communities with more stable environments.

Objective and hypothesis: The overarching goal of the present section is to test the hypothesis that organisms exposed naturally to a “stressful” environment (e.g. fluctuations in temperature, low salinities, etc.) will show an increased capacity for tolerating pollutant stress. Furthermore, we will test the hypothesis that these organisms will also better tolerate a combination of environmental and pollutant (i.e. oil spill) stresses.

Work Package 3: A joint toolbox for environmental managers

It is widely accepted that management of the Arctic environments should be ecosystem-based and rely on scientific knowledge and understanding of the environment. To date, many gaps in knowledge remain, partly due to an incomplete understanding of environmental conditions in the relevant areas of the Arctic and of the species that live there. Furthermore, consistent, rigorous monitoring programmes need to be developed using measures that can be applied throughout the Arctic to allow the detection of changes in the environment. For this, standardized methodologies and guidelines existing in other regions should be applied in the Barents Sea region. For instance, the ICES, through the Working Group on the Biological Effects of Contaminants (WGBEC), is assessing the long-term impact of oil spills on marine and coastal life as requested from OSPAR (Oslo/Paris convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic) to provide guidance documents on the use of biological effects techniques for oil spill situations. Monitoring tools such as biomarkers should therefore be developed along the ICES guidelines documents for the Arctic region.

Objectives: The objective of WP3 is to integrate the results from WP1 and WP2 into a compilation of standard methodologies and provide a knowledge base and baseline- and toxicity dataset that can be directly included into ongoing international efforts for defining assessment criteria for environmental monitoring such as the ICES Working Group on the Biological Effects of Contaminants (WGBEC).

Work Package 4: Education

Education plays a central role in the “High North” Strategy of the Norwegian and Russian governments. It is essential at all levels, public or private, for the development and sustainability of communities in the region. It is therefore among our main objectives to be an important catalyst for directing the education system in the north more towards industrial and technological needs in order to strengthen links with the private sector. As most of the project’s Norwegian partners are affiliated with the ARCTOS network of researchers, we will take full advantage of the highly successful educational environment developed by this network over the last ten years. This includes strong networking with the private oil and gas industry, a research school providing an optimal learning environment for the COOPENOR PhD students and the Young Scientist Forum arranged every year in connection with the internationally renowned Arctic Frontiers ( hosted by the UIT each year.

Approach: The project will be used as an educational platform for young undergraduate and graduate students. Two PhD students, one in Russia and one in Norway, are included in the project; a Norwegian PhD student to be employed at APN and UiT and PhD student J. Lukina from the Northern Arctic Federal University (NArFU) in Arkhangelsk. Both will benefit from the multidisciplinary scientific environment within ARCTOS as well as APN’s competence in efficiently applying fundamental knowledge to solutions for the petroleum industry. Master’s students will be recruited at UiT and at the IB KarRC and will, together with the PhD students, play a key role in the exchange of competences between Norway and Russia. Furthermore, the experiments and fieldwork of the WP1 and WP2 will be integrated to existing courses at both Norwegian and Russian universities. At the UiT, the seasonal baseline study (WP1) will be integrated to the course BIO2008 “Introduction to ecotoxicological research” where undergraduate students will participate in the field sampling and the analysis of some biomarkers at the ecotoxicological laboratory at UiT.


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