NEW laws are needed to protect the vulnerable Arctic from increasing amounts of commercial activity brought about by the melting ice in the region, according to WWF.
The international conservation organisation has highlighted that the Arctic is changing, with reduced ice cover meaning growing interest from the fishing sector, oil exploration and shipping.
This means current laws formed when the region was largely impenetrable are no longer adequate to protect it from environmental damage, it argues.
WWF today publishes a series of reports, called The International Governance and Regulation of the Marine Arctic, aimed at encouraging governments to overhaul the governance regime for the Arctic.
The reports have been published ahead of a meeting in Greenland of the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental group of Arctic states – and as Russian president Dmitry Medvedev visits Norway for talks on Arctic issues.
WWF Scotland director Dr Richard Dixon said: "Having been mostly inaccessible up until now, the melting of the ice is now opening a new ocean and bringing new threats to the pristine Arctic environment from commercial activities, such as oil drilling, mining and fishing.
"What happens in the Arctic is not only important for our global environment and our global economy, but for that of Scotland too."
He added: "More than a quarter of the fish eaten in Europe comes from the Arctic, but yet there are still no effective rules for fishing in newly accessible areas."
He told The Scotsman the situation could "get very nasty" as different nations compete to drill for oil, potentially becoming violent, unless new governance structures are put in place.
WWF predicts the Arctic could be ice free in the summers within decades, bringing more and more commercial interest.
Commercial ships have recently successfully sailed the Northern Sea Route above Siberia, and shipyards are getting increasing numbers of orders for tankers capable of dealing with remnant ice.
The organisation argues that accelerating exploration is raising the prospects of disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and that there are not even any clean-up rules for when something goes wrong. The reports conclude there are large gaps in governance and management regimes, with loopholes that could allow irreparable damage to the marine environment and indigenous people.
And it proposes drawing up a new Arctic framework convention as a solution, building on the work of the existing Arctic Council, which would find legal ways to address the list of priorities highlighted in WWF's reports.
Lasse Gustavsson, incoming executive conservation director for WWF-International, and currently CEO of WWF-Sweden, said: "We challenge governments to advance alternatives that would work equally well to safeguard the region."
He said the conservation organisation had shown it was not possible to "simply deny that problems exist, or to insist that there are already adequate responses to the problems."
"We need a new comprehensive solution for the protection of the arctic marine environment," he said.
And he added: "The ice has protected the Arctic Ocean for hundreds of years; we have collectively removed that protection though our contributions to climate change, and now we must work collectively to replace that protection."