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Frozen fishing: Arctic moratorium

A fishing boat in the ice-filled waters off Greenland. The agreement bans commercial fishing in the disputed waters further north in the Arctic Ocean A fishing boat in the ice-filled waters off Greenland. The agreement bans commercial fishing in the disputed waters further north in the Arctic Ocean Yongyut Kumsri
27 Jan
A multilateral moratorium prevents Arctic Ocean fishing for 16 years, setting aside some degree of sovereignty disputes while scientific research of the top of the world continues

In December, the EU, the US, Russia, China, Canada, Japan, Iceland, Denmark and South Korea – all with interests in the Arctic – agreed an official moratorium on commercial fishing across an area of 2.8 million sq km in Arctic Ocean waters. While there is as yet no commercial fishing taking place at this high latitude anyway, the 16-year moratorium insists that even as the waters become increasingly accessible for fishing vessels, the fish stocks must remain untouched, allowing relevant scientific research to continue uninterrupted.

In 2016, the Arctic sea ice minimum – a measurement showing when the sea ice extent is at its lowest each year – declined to just 4.14 million sq km, the second-lowest ever recorded. While individual years may fluctuate (2012 remains the record lowest sea ice minimum, down to only 3.41 million sq km), overall the annual minimum Arctic sea ice has declined by 13.2 per cent per decade since 1980. This has created ever-larger expanses of ice-free Arctic Ocean, resulting in debates over everything from potential shipping routes to mineral exploitation. The new moratorium places a hiatus on the ownership of fish stocks also being up for debate.

‘One of the important things to realise is that [the agreement] really does only cover the central Arctic Ocean, the high seas section,’ highlights Robert Headland, a senior associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. ‘Most of that, for much of the year – even in the height of summer – is ice-covered, and you require serious vessels to get through it.’

As Headland explains, many of the seas surrounding the Arctic Ocean – from the Barents Sea, north of Russia, to the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska – have had established fishing industries for a long time, which won’t be affected by this moratorium. Therefore, he views the agreement as ‘a precautionary principle,’ arguing that the 16-year moratorium will mean ‘fixing it before it’s broken,’ preventing Arctic fish stocks from becoming irreversibly depleted.

Headland points to both the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty and the 1959 Antarctic Treaty as case studies where geopolitical tensions regarding which countries could claim sovereignty over the polar regions were eventually settled by agreed treaties, and believes the same could potentially be done for the Arctic. ‘The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is working, and could be a nice model for the Arctic,’ he predicts. ‘The Antarctic Treaty owed a lot to the Spitsbergen Treaty, so the two polar regions have set precedents for each other. I see advantages for CCAMLR being adapted for the Arctic, because the biological problems are essentially similar.’ 

This was published in the February 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.

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