When climate change drives diplomacy: Landmark agreement prohibits fishing in Arctic’s high seas

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Negotiations on a landmark agreement for the Arctic concluded last week when the five Arctic coastal states plus Iceland, the European Union, and three Asian countries with major ocean trawling fleets agreed to prohibit commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) for the next sixteen years. The agreement builds on the 2015 Arctic Fisheries Declaration signed by five Arctic coastal states – the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark – to enact a moratorium on fishing in the CAO until more international mechanisms were in place to safeguard its fish stocks. Last week’s agreement also responds affirmatively to a letter signed by over 2,000 scientists five years ago, which called for delaying fishing “until such time as the biology and ecology of the region are understood sufficiently well to allow for setting scientifically sound catch levels.”

Surrounding the North Pole, the CAO sits beyond any the jurisdiction of any single country. This means it constitutes part of the high seas, which account for approximately 60% of the world’s oceans. For the most part, these areas are found beyond countries’ 200-mile exclusive economic zones extending from their shorelines. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the main treaty governing use of the world’s oceans, notes that “the high seas are open to all States,” giving all of the world’s 195 countries the freedom to fish in these remote, often treacherous waters.

The free-for-fall nature of the high seas has led to exploitation of their fisheries, particularly as the technology has improved to allow fishing fleets to reach farther and deeper than ever before. A report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2006 found that two-thirds of the world’s high seas fish stocks were being overfished, including species like Patagonian toothfish and orange roughy.

Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean are not overfished, as no commercial activity occurs in its often icebound waters. The chairman’s statement from last week’s meeting of the negotiating parties in Washington, D.C., which was the sixth meeting in two years during which the agreement was discussed, explained:

“Commercial fishing has never been known to occur in this area, nor is it likely to occur in the near future. However, given the changing conditions of the Arctic Ocean, the governments in question developed this Agreement in accordance with the precautionary approach to fisheries management.”

Essentially, there’s a worry that as sea ice retreats, the world’s commercial fishing fleets will penetrate farther north. They would be following fish stocks that are shifting closer to the North Pole as they seek out cooler waters in the face of a warming ocean. In recent years, less of the Arctic’s high seas have been covered by sea ice. The portion of the CAO where sea ice cover is the lowest is just north of the Bering Strait, close to the Pacific Ocean and within reach of Asian shipping fleets. As the image below shows, in September of recent years when sea ice reaches its annual minimum, this area has generally consisted of open water.

To avoid the possibility of imminent overfishing in the increasingly accessible CAO, an area the size of the Mediterranean Sea, nine countries and the EU agreed that until scientists can better study fish stocks in the area, no commercial fishing should be allowed. Their worry was deep enough that it even brought the U.S. and Russia, whose relations are at their worse point since the Cold War, together to the table to agree on an issue of common concern.

You might be wondering why, besides the six Arctic states, only three other countries and the EU were involved in the negotiations of the CAO fisheries agreement. In short, it’s because those three countries – Japan, South Korea, China (including Taiwan) – accounted for 45% of the world’s high-seas landed value between 2000 and 2010, according to a paper published in Scientific Reports. Add into the mix Spain and France, the EU countries with the two biggest fishing fleets, and that figure grows to 54%.

Fish for sale at Tokyo’s massive Tsukiji market. Photo: Mia Bennett, 2014.

If the CAO agreement were to widen its circle of signatories, Chile, the Philippines, and Indonesia should probably be involved, since they are the other three countries along with the U.S. that round out the list of the world’s top ten countries fishing in the high seas. Together, these nations capture a whopping 71% of the world’s high-seas landed values.

Before building on the newfound success of the CAO fisheries agreement, all of the negotiating countries need to sign it. If and when they do, scientists, indigenous peoples, fishermen, and other people with knowledge of Arctic fisheries will have their work cut out for them over the next sixteen years.

They’ll have to figure out the answers to questions like: How will commercial fishing in the CAO affect polar bears, seals, whales, and other marine mammals? How might emissions and noise from commercial fishing fleets affect marine species, along with the people who live in the Arctic Ocean? What would be the economic and environmental consequences of keeping the CAO closed to commercial fishing indefinitely? How vulnerable is the shallow Arctic Ocean to deep-sea trawling?

While these issues and many others will require a great deal of research, at least the CAO has been given a little over a decade and a half of a respite from commercial fishing until more is known about its effects. The same can’t be said for offshore oil drilling in the Arctic: last week, Italian oil company Eni received the first permit from the U.S. federal government in two years for exploration off Alaska’s north coast, while the Senate also voted to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to, in theory, help pay for Alaska’s $1.5 trillion tax cut. Stricly speaking for the Arctic environment, last week marked two steps forward, one step back.