Polar Notes

Feb 2016

International agreement sought on fishing at the North Pole

As climate change leads to warmer waters in the Arctic, the productivity of fish stocks is expected to increase. The reduction of sea-ice, at least in some areas of the Arctic for parts of the year, is likely to result in greater access for high seas fishing fleets. Although uncertainty remains over how fish stocks will respond to the changing climate, concerns are being voiced by about the potential for Arctic fish stocks to be exhausted rapidly, if sufficient safeguards are not put in place.  

Responding to these concerns in Oslo last July, the ‘A5’ Arctic Ocean coastal states (Norway, Denmark, Russia, Canada and the United States) signed a ‘Declaration’ to prevent unregulated high seas fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO). Although the signatories acknowledged that commercial fishing in the high seas area of the CAO is unlikely to occur in the near future (mainly due to the continued prevalence of sea ice), they expressed an intent to “implement appropriate interim measures to deter unregulated fishing in the future”. The A5 subsequently promised to only authorise their fleets to conduct commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean if such fishing was undertaken “in accordance with recognised international standards”.  

That the A5 are not prepared to wait for the rest of the international community to catch-up with the changing reality of fish stocks in the region is a sign of just how important fisheries management could be to their economies in the future. Among their primary concerns is the impact on existing subsistence fisheries of Arctic indigenous peoples and local communities, and the problem of over-exploitation of target species and related impacts on non-target species (mammals, such as whales).

In December 2015, the coastal states followed up their declaration by attending a meeting in Washington, D.C. initiated, hosted, and chaired by the US. The purpose was to discuss the options available to them, including the possibility of a binding international agreement proposed by the US. Acknowledging the fishing rights of non-Arctic Ocean coastal states and entities in the high seas, Iceland, China, Korea, Japan and the European Union were also invited to attend. This produced a more inclusive ‘5+5’ arrangement putting a number of non-Arctic actors, as well as Iceland, on a more equal footing with the A5, at least with regard to the issue of CAO fisheries.  

The negotiation of a fisheries agreement could also reinforce the perception that the A5 are seeking a fait accompli over the terms under which the rest of the international community can access high seas fisheries in the CAO. However, the Oslo Declaration stressed that any measures implemented by the coastal states will be carried out in accordance with existing international instruments. Although the Washington meeting suggests that a binding agreement is now also being considered, there is little evidence to suggest the A5 would seek to impose any measures on non-signatories.  

Issue to watch

The ‘5+5’ are expected to meet again in April 2016. So far, the proposals which have been put forward appear to be in accordance with the UK’s own interests, yet the manner in which any future agreement on fisheries is implemented should be monitored. A key challenge for the A5 will be the need to broaden participation if international interest in CAO high seas fisheries grows. The high seas in the CAO will retain that status and any agreement on fishing there will depend on meaningful participation from all interested states (e.g. Taiwan), not just the 5+5. For now, the UK actively work within the framework of the EU – to which the UK has transferred exclusive competence on marine capture fisheries – to help negotiate an agreement which supports the efforts of the 5+5.

Map of the high seas area of the Central Arctic Ocean