In June, the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement entered into force, bringing to fruition a diplomatic effort that began more than a decade ago.
The agreement represents an unusual and farsighted effort to address a potentially serious environmental problem before it occurs. Too often, governments find themselves in the unenviable situation of dealing with issues only after they have arisen. This time, acting in advance will prevent unregulated commercial fishing in a wide swath of the Arctic Ocean that could have caused significant harm to the marine environment.
In another first, a formal agreement relating specifically to the Arctic region includes non-Arctic signatories, with parties to the agreement comprising Canada, China, Denmark (in respect of Greenland and the Faroe Islands), the European Union, Iceland, Japan, Norway, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
It demonstrates that nations can find ways to act in their mutual self-interest even in the face of serious geopolitical tensions. There were many sources of friction that might have derailed progress along the way – particularly during the Trump administration. But with key players in the United States, Russia and China signing and ratifying the agreement, the oceans have a new and groundbreaking multilateral instrument.
Commercial fishing ban
The agreement consists of two basic commitments. First, the parties will not allow their vessels to conduct commercial fishing operations in the high seas portion of the Central Arctic Ocean.
Parties commit, for the duration of the agreement, not to allow their vessels to conduct commercial fishing operations in the high seas portion of the Central Arctic Ocean, diagonally hatched in the map above. (Image: Pew Charitable Trusts)
No commercial fishing has ever taken place in this area because until now, it has been covered in ice. But the Arctic is warming three times as fast as the Earth as a whole. As a consequence, a significant percentage of the Arctic Ocean, including some of the high seas area, is now ice-free for part of each year. Current projections indicate that the entire Arctic Ocean is likely to be ice-free for part of the year within a few decades.
So why would these governments agree to prevent commercial fishing in this large and increasingly accessible ocean space? Mostly because they do not know enough about the ecosystems of this part of the ocean to have any reliable basis on which to manage a commercial fishery there successfully, which is to say, sustainably. By using the “precautionary approach”, the parties have prevented the possibility of serious environmental degradation.
The second basic obligation is a joint programme of scientific research and monitoring which will advance the state of knowledge of one of the least understood parts of the planet. The programme aims to improve understanding of the ecosystems and also to determine whether fish stocks in the agreement area could ever be harvested on a sustainable basis, and what the possible impacts would be.
The programme will also give the parties more information to decide, sometime in the future, whether to replace the agreement with a treaty that would open and manage a sustainable commercial fishery on the basis of sound science.
The agreement will remain in force for 16 years, and will be extended in five-year increments afterwards. This represents a compromise among different interests: Canada, Denmark (Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Norway, Russia and the United States – whose national fishery zones surround the high seas portion of the Central Arctic Ocean – would have preferred to forestall the possibility of a high seas fishery for even longer. On the other side, parties from Asia and the European Union who have fleets seeking new opportunities to fish in high seas areas would have preferred a shorter ban.
Two other aspects of the agreement also deserve mention: the incorporation of indigenous and local knowledge in the scientific programmes and related work, and a guarantee that Arctic indigenous peoples will participate in the implementation of the agreement.
The agreement recognises that Arctic residents, including indigenous communities, have significant interests in preventing unregulated fishing in the high seas of the Central Arctic Ocean. Even though the indigenous people and others who live near the Arctic coastline do not engage in high seas fishing, the potential depletion of fish stocks in the high seas area by commercial fishing vessels would threaten marine resources closer to shore on which those communities depend.
That is why three of the delegations – Canada, Denmark (Greenland and the Faroe Islands) and the United States – included representatives from indigenous communities who provided compelling perspectives and insights that may not otherwise have been considered.
Getting to yes
The agreement had a gestation period of well over a decade, beginning in 2008 with a US Congress resolution which called for one to be negotiated. Next, the United States adopted its first-ever Arctic Fisheries Management Plan, which essentially prohibited commercial fishing in an area north of Alaska – also because of a lack of scientific knowledge necessary to manage fisheries successfully.
In parallel, the United States began urging its immediate neighbours in the Arctic – Russia and Canada – to consider the possibility of an international agreement to prevent or delay commercial fishing in the high seas portion of the Central Arctic Ocean. Those discussions eventually broadened to include Norway and Denmark.
Although it was far from clear that these other four governments would support the launching of negotiations on such an agreement – Russia, in particular, expressed significant doubts about the necessity or even the desirability of moving forward – these delegations signed a non-binding statement in Oslo in 2015.
The resulting declaration recognised that, under international law, vessels from any state have the right to fish on the high seas. Thus, a broader negotiating process would be necessary to prevent unregulated fishing in the high seas portion of the Central Arctic Ocean, one that would include other states, as well as the European Union, with fishing fleets potentially capable of fishing there.
Obstacles to progress
Looking back, one might be tempted to conclude that the development of the agreement followed an obvious, even inevitable, path to completion. That was hardly the case. During the years in question, serious tensions arose between Russia and the other Arctic states over the situation in Syria, and especially over the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Evidence that Russia sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 US election and the more recent revelations of Russia’s role in hacking US government computer systems made matters worse.
These and other sources of friction, including a souring of US–China relations during the Trump administration, threatened many times to derail the process. In the end, though, the governments in question chose to set aside those differences about other matters in favour of joining as partners in preventing unregulated commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean – a matter of mutual interest. Russia, having repeatedly expressed misgivings about the negotiating process, became the first to ratify the agreement. The United States and others followed in reasonably short order. China deposited its instrument in late May 2021, triggering the entry into force on 25 June.
The governments now need to decide when and where to hold the first Meeting of the Parties, a question complicated by the pandemic. While this gathering could theoretically take place virtually, in practice only an in-person event would allow for the careful negotiation of decisions necessary to begin successful implementation of the agreement. For that reason, the first meeting probably will not occur until 2022, when an in-person meeting of this nature may become feasible.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Polar Points, a column of the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute.
David Balton is a Senior Fellow with the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute. He formerly served as the US Ambassador for Oceans and Fisheries and, in that capacity, chaired the international negotiations that produced the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement.
This article appears courtesy of China Dialogue Ocean and may be found in its original form here.