Polar Notes

Dec 2017

Arctic fishing powers reach historic agreement

On 30th November 2017, in Washington, D.C., the five central Arctic Ocean coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States), together with four major fishing nations (China, Iceland, Japan and South Korea) and the European Union (A5+5), concluded an historic agreement, which, once in force, aims to prevent unregulated commercial fishing in the high seas area of the central Arctic Ocean for at least 16 years (see map overleaf).  

The main aim of the agreement is to prevent such unregulated commercial fishing until scientists and governments have more scientific data from which to develop appropriate measures for regulating future commercial fisheries in the region.  

The deal comes in response to growing international interest in the fisheries potential of previously permanently ice-covered waters of the central Arctic Ocean. Sea-ice melt linked to rapidly warming temperatures in the Arctic has left as much as 40% of the central Arctic Ocean ice-free in recent summers. Existing fish stocks are also thought to be moving northwards from adjacent waters.  

Beyond these observations, scant knowledge exists about the make-up of the central Arctic Ocean’s marine living resources and wider ecosystems. Furthermore, without a historical baseline of what might be there, it is difficult to know how climate change is affecting Arctic marine life or predict what further changes might occur in the future. In 2015, the House of Lords Arctic Committee was among those who concluded that a moratorium on fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean was therefore vital, at least until an internationally-agreed management regime was in place.

The agreement comes two years after the A5 made a political commitment to prevent their own vessels from engaging in unregulated commercial fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean unless an effective international mechanism was established (see PolarNotes #1). The A5 have been particularly concerned that any rush to exploit fish stocks in the high seas, might also damage fish stocks in their adjacent exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and the fisheries protection zone around Svalbard.  

For the A5’s commitment to be effective though, the rest of the world’s ocean-going fishing fleets (especially those capable of operating at high latitudes), also needed to be involved – hence the decision to invite the +5 to the negotiating table. That required the A5 to concede that others beyond the Arctic have a meaningful role to play in the central Arctic Ocean’s high seas fisheries, as is now also manifest in the fact that all decision-making under the agreement will be by consensus. This compromise is further linked to the duration of the agreement, which entitles any party to terminate the agreement after a period of 16 years following the agreement’s entry into force. That stops one or more of the A5 from blocking commercial fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean indefinitely.  

The agreement is significant in several other respects as well. It is the first time that such an agreement has been put in place in advance of the development of commercial fisheries in a high seas area. The 16-year ban on unregulated commercial fisheries aims to provide enough time for detailed scientific assessments to be made of the central Arctic Ocean. To that end, the A5+5 also agreed to develop a joint programme of scientific research and monitoring.

The agreement was also reached despite tensions between NATO (which includes four of the central Arctic Ocean littoral states) and Russia. While claims that the Arctic is insulated from broader conflicts tend to be over-stated, the agreement demonstrates that constructive engagement is still possible in areas where the West and Russia have common interests.  

However, despite some media reports, the agreement should not be interpreted as constituting a ban on all fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean. Limited commercial fishing could still take place once the parties have decided to commence negotiations to establish a regional fisheries management organisation or arrangement. Also, as the agreement does not apply to non-parties, other potential fishing players such as Ukraine and Taiwan are not bound by its terms. It remains to be seen whether they will be invited into future negotiations.  

Differences remain between the A5 and the +5, and indeed others, about the desirability of opening up fisheries in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean. If the consensus agreed in Washington is to hold, the A5 cannot be seen by the +5 to be attempting to ban all fishing in this high seas pocket indefinitely, unless of course the +5 are convinced by scientific and economic arguments that a complete moratorium would be to the benefit of all.