High Stakes for the High Seas: Fishing Nations Discuss the Future of the Arctic

by Mary Sweeters

December 1, 2015

Melting sea ice makes commercial fishing a credible threat in the Central Arctic Ocean, but right now we have a chance to protect it.

Glacier Ice Scenics Greenland

© Christian Åslund / Greenpeac

This week in Washington D.C. — 5,000  miles from the U.N. climate talks in Paris — several nations will gather for their own negotiations, necessitated by a melting Arctic Ocean. They’re gathering to discuss a moratorium on commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean.

Already signed by the five nations with Arctic coastline earlier this year the moratorium temporarily prohibits commercial fishing in the high seas of the Arctic Ocean until further scientific study gives us a better understanding of the ecosystem and helps determine what, if any, fishing fleets should ever be allowed in the seasonally ice-covered region.

The Central Arctic Ocean covers a large area, about the same size as the Mediterranean Sea. It surrounds the North Pole and is beyond national jurisdiction, sometimes referred to as a “donut hole” since it’s surrounded by the territorial waters of Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States.

It is covered in thick ice for most of the year, but as the planet warms the amount that melts each summer is increasing, and scientists predict that it will be open water in summer some time this century. This opens the possibility of commercial fishing in its waters.

Central Arctic Ocean Map

Map via Cryopolitics.com.

Why Protect the Central Arctic Ocean?

The Central Arctic Ocean is one of the least protected and most vulnerable marine areas on the planet. The more we understand about the impacts of climate change on the Arctic Ocean, and in turn the rest of the planet, the more clear it becomes that initiating agreements now is critical to protecting this vulnerable global commons. History shows that unregulated or poorly regulated fishing has disastrous results, leading to overfishing and depleted fish stocks.

Here are some reasons that countries joining the negotiations this week should sign the moratorium agreement and, going further, should develop an ambitious plan for the protection of the Arctic:

  • The Arctic Ocean is a very special place. In 2014, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity designated nearly the entire high seas of the Central Arctic Ocean as Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs). To achieve this designation, the region met specific criteria regarding uniqueness, importance for threatened or endangered species or habitats, and vulnerability/sensitivity, among others. While this designation does not then mandate specific protections, it supports the case for precautionary agreements such as the fishing moratorium.
  • Arctic ecosystems are under threat. Limiting industrial activity and increasing scientific research in this delicate area is the best chance to save the diversity of species that call it home. Large-scale marine reserves are not only an important conservation and management tool, they are also effective in building resilience against a rapidly changing climate and acidifying waters.
  • There is no single treaty governing activities in the Arctic. Unlike Antarctica, only a patchwork of differing rules (most of which are not legally binding) regulate what goes on in the Arctic Ocean. This leaves the region wide open to exploitation and illegal activity.
  • Arctic residents depend on a healthy ecosystem to fish and hunt. Many residents of the Arctic rely on healthy fish populations along the edges of the ice, as they have for millennia, for fishing and for hunting seals, walrus, and other predators. The Inuit Circumpolar Council called the agreement announced this summer “heartening” and called for a binding international agreement to include more stakeholders, citing the importance of healthy fish stocks to coastal Inuit livelihood and culture.

For the Future of the Arctic

Greenpeace welcomes the fact that an international meeting is taking place with the aim of preventing unregulated fishing in the international waters of the Arctic, and we urge the invited international parties to sign the declaration and make it legally binding.

However, a temporary ban on fishing is not enough in order to ensure that the Arctic is protected for future generations. Coastal states and the international community must make a holistic, long-term plan that ensures the sustainable management of Arctic marine and natural resources. This plan should designate the Central Arctic Ocean as a marine reserve to protect it from any extractive activities, as well as establish a network of Marine Protected Areas across the Arctic Ocean that includes waters within national jurisdiction.

Mary Sweeters

By Mary Sweeters

Mary Sweeters is a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace USA. She works to fight the undue influence of the oil industry in solidarity with communities affected by oil extraction, pollution, and climate change, and to advocate for a just transition to a clean energy economy. She is from Sonoma, California.

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