Pressure mounts for global accord to protect central Arctic Ocean fish

“A step towards good Arctic governance”


This map shows a 2.8-million-square-kilometre area of international waters in the central Arctic Ocean, beyond the 200-mile zone of the five Arctic coastal states: Canada, Russia, Norway, the U.S. (Alaska) and Denmark (Greenland). (FILE PHOTO)

This map shows a 2.8-million-square-kilometre area of international waters in the central Arctic Ocean, beyond the 200-mile zone of the five Arctic coastal states: Canada, Russia, Norway, the U.S. (Alaska) and Denmark (Greenland). (FILE PHOTO)

Arctic states, Indigenous groups, scientists and environmental groups have fortified their call for an international agreement to prevent fishing in the central Arctic Ocean until there’s more knowledge about what fish, if any, are found in its waters.

Such an international agreement, now in the final draft stage, could be signed as early as next month when officials meet in Washington, D.C.

At stake are the fish stocks in the most northerly international waters—including those off Nunavut’s Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands—which lie in the so-called “donut hole” at the top of the world.

These international waters, which lie 200 miles off any coastline and so are beyond the control of any Arctic nation, are still unfished.

And in fact, it’s still uncertain whether there are any fish there.

“The question I still haven’t gotten an answer to is, ‘has anybody ever caught a fish in those waters?’ said Henry Huntington of Alaska, the Arctic science director of Oceans Conservancy. “The most likely fish would be Arctic cod. It’s a fish that likes those kind of temperatures. Whether there might be other kinds of fish out there is a big unknown.”

So, in the absence of fish stock data in the central Arctic Ocean, it’s unclear whether the area would be an attractive fishing ground as the polar region warms.

But the international agreement would look at increasing the biological knowledge of the area, and be “a step towards good Arctic governance,” Huntington said.

Concern over what happens to the fisheries in the central Arctic Ocean prompted an open letter circulated this week from international scientists who urged Canada, Denmark-Greenland, Iceland, Japan, Norway, China, South Korea, Russia, the United States and the European Union to conclude a successful agreement, “demonstrating their commitment to sound stewardship of the Arctic Ocean and peaceful international cooperation.”

It’s the third letter they’ve written since 2002 when 2,000 scientists from 67 countries first asked for an accord in the central Arctic Ocean.

They asked for a moratorium on fishing there until research can assess the impacts of fisheries on the ecosystem and for a management, monitoring and enforcement system to be in place before commercial fishing begins.

To date, there’s been no commercial fishing in the northernmost part of the Arctic but its waters are closer to Asian ports than Antarctica’s waters are and in the southern ocean, large bottom trawlers have already regularly harvested krill and toothfish, placing stress on populations of these fish.

Some observers fear that a lack of regulation in the central Arctic Ocean could eventually lead to similar trawling there as well.

In 2015, Canada, the U.S., Norway, Russia and Denmark—representing Greenland—signed a declaration, also supported by the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which said they wouldn’t fish in the central Arctic Ocean.

That move was applauded by Jimmy Stotts, president of ICC-Alaska, who said it was necessary because “the reduction in multi-year ice and longer ice-free time in the High Arctic waters as a result of climate change have made this region more accessible to foreign ships and potential environmental damage.”

But that declaration had limited signatories and didn’t include other states which engage in commercial fishing around the world.

The agreement now under consideration would be exceptional, said Huntington, because it’s not about regulating fishing—it’s about making sure that fish stocks aren’t depleted, as was the case with the Bering sea or eastern Canada, before commercial fishing starts.

It also recognizes the input of Indigenous knowledge and the importance fish stocks play in marine life.

“We hope this agreement says, while the pressure is off, ‘Let’s all agree to not turn this into a race that hurts everybody. Let’s be careful now,'” Huntington said. “If it looks like it’s going to be a place that can support a good commercial fishery, let’s talk about that, and talk about that before we go fishing.”

The agreement, if signed, would be exceptional because, unlike other fisheries management agreements, it seeks a fishing moratorium, for now, but seeks a mechanism to pave the way later for fishing.

But that could ease hesitation on the part of other signatories who might accuse Arctic countries of trying to protect Arctic fish stocks for themselves.

“So if you’re one of the non-Arctic countries, you say, ‘Why should we agree’?

“That’s an argument that you’d have to overcome,” Huntington said.

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