Officials from 9 countries and the European Union reached agreement on November 30 on an historic international accord that will protect 1.1 million square miles of the Central Arctic Ocean. Once signed, the legally binding agreement will prevent commercial fishing in the region for at least 16 years while scientific research is conducted to learn more about its marine life.
“For the first time, nations are committing to scientific research in a high seas area before commercial fishing begins,” said Scott Highleyman, vice-president of conservation policy and programs at Ocean Conservancy who also served on the U.S. delegation negotiating the agreement. “This precautionary action recognizes both the pace of change in the Arctic due to climate change as well as the tradition of Arctic cooperation across international boundaries.”
Officials from United States, Canada, Norway, Russia, Greenland, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, China and the European Union struck an agreement during the sixth negotiating session.
“Implementing this unprecedented agreement means we can avoid additional impacts to Arctic marine mammals and fishes on which many coastal communities rely,” said Trevor Taylor, vice president of conservation for Oceans North, a Canadian nonprofit that has also worked toward this agreement.
The decision comes two years after the U.S., Canada, Norway, Greenland and Russia issued a declaration that they would voluntarily refrain from fishing in the high Arctic. They also pledged to seek a binding agreement with non-Arctic countries that operate commercial fishing fleets in distant waters.
Similar precautionary Arctic fisheries plans were put into place by the U.S. off the northern coast of Alaska in 2009 and by Canada in collaboration with Inuvialuit officials in 2014.
In 2012, more than 2,000 scientists from around the world called on Arctic countries to take similar precautionary action in the Central Arctic Ocean. And in 2014, the Inuit Circumpolar Council called for a fisheries moratorium in these waters until adequate scientific research and management measures could be ensured.
Although commercial fishing has not yet begun in the Central Arctic Ocean, increased melting of Arctic sea ice in recent summers has resulted in open water in up to 40 percent of the area covered by the agreement.
The initial term of the agreement is 16 years after which it will automatically be extended every five years unless a country objects or until science-based fisheries quotas and rules are put in place.