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Meeting to Determine Future of Arctic Fishing Delivers Mixed Results

by Mary Sweeters

December 7, 2015

Proceedings dealt more with ways to exploit the vulnerable region than protect it.

© Christian Åslund / Greenpeac

Last week, while countries were negotiating commitments to reduce their carbon emissions to combat climate change in Paris, several nations met in Washington D.C. to discuss the warming Arctic Ocean. The delegations in D.C. considered the declaration, currently signed by the five Arctic coastal states, to prevent unregulated commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean — the area beyond national jurisdiction that will see increasingly open waters in coming decades, enticing commercial fishing fleets to move farther north.

The meetings, convened by the U.S. State Department, brought the five Arctic coastal nations together with five additional stakeholders with significant fishing interests: China, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, and South Korea.

Unfortunately, from the U.S. State Department’s statement from the meeting, the participants seemed to focus on the potential to exploit the Arctic Ocean rather than protect it. The fact that several of the delegations present did not have a mandate to negotiate any particular instrument to the topic reveals the low level of commitment that powerful fishing nations have in terms of ensuring a sustainable future for the Arctic.

According to the notes, the U.S. demonstrated some responsibility at the meeting by presenting a proposal for an international binding agreement to prevent any unregulated fishing, pending the establishment of future management regimes in the area, similar to the non-binding declaration signed by the five nations with Arctic coastline earlier this year.

It is somewhat positive to see that the meeting participants identified the need for a precautionary approach to fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. This is a  region that is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the planet, is changing drastically, and is inadequately studied — all of which point to the need for for extra attention and thoughtful international collaboration. However, the policy suggestions in the meeting do not reflect the severity of the situation or answer to the opportunity that is presented to the participating nations.

An agreement where fishing in the warming and previously un-fished waters of the Central Arctic Ocean is on the table is not enough to ensure that this ecosystem is protected for future generations. Given the region’s ecological vulnerability, its recognition as an Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area (EBSA), and the high level of uncertainty regarding Arctic marine ecosystem health in the face of climate change, we need to emphasize environmental protection first and foremost. The international community must make a binding, holistic plan that ensures long term protection of the Arctic marine environment. Such a plan should include the designation of the Central Arctic Ocean as a marine reserve free from extractive activities among a network of Marine Protected Areas across the Arctic Ocean, including waters within national jurisdiction.

Here is a quick list of findings and acknowledgements based on the State Department’s statement on the meeting:

1)  We need more scientific research and monitoring in the region and continued inclusion of Arctic Indigenous Peoples in these and policy efforts.

2)  Based on findings from an April 2015 scientific forum on fish stocks in the Central Arctic Ocean, there was agreement that it is unlikely that there will be fish stocks capable of sustaining commercial activity in the near future.

3)  The impact of climate change on the region makes speculation on the commercial availability of fish stocks difficult and therefore a precautionary approach and additional scientific research are needed.

4)  There are several international frameworks for fisheries management but no specific
mechanisms to regulate fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean, with the exception of the area covered by the Convention Area of the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC).

5)  Several policy approaches were suggested, including the US proposal for a binding agreement to prevent unregulated commercial fishing in the central Arctic, and the negotiation in the foreseeable future of one or more regional/sub-regional fisheries management organizations in the area.

It is our hope that as parties are resuming their discussions again during the spring and autumn of 2016, marine protection is going to be at the heart of the agenda.

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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