Yesterday, delegates from nine nations and the European Union (EU) signed a historic agreement to prevent commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean for at least 16 years, thus protecting the marine ecosystems of the region – already in dramatic flux due to climate change – from further human-caused stressors.
“This is the first multilateral agreement of its kind to take a legally binding, precautionary approach to protect an area from commercial fishing before that fishing has begun,” the US Department of State wrote in a press release.
The agreement will safeguard a 2.8-million-square-kilometer (1.8-million-square-mile) stretch of ocean that, until recently, was mostly covered by sea ice. Following years of increasing Arctic warming, this area (about the size of the Mediterranean) is now accessible to ships for much of the year, opening it up to potential large-scale fishing for the first time. And these waters are incredibly appealing to the industry seeing as widespread over-harvesting has significantly depleted seafood stocks elsewhere and past studies have shown that fish populations are moving northward as ocean temperatures rise.
Realizing the urgency of enacting preemptive regulations, the five nations whose territories border the central Arctic Ocean – Canada, the US, Russia, Denmark (Greenland and the Faroe Islands), and Norway – began the process of negotiations that led to this week’s signing more than five years ago. In 2015, China, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union joined in.
David Balton, a former US ambassador for oceans and fisheries and the leader of the negotiations, explained to the Pew Charitable Trusts that the agreement embodies two commitments. The first is the 16-year bar of unregulated fishing in the designated zone, with the possibility of 5-year extensions. The second is to establish and operate the Joint Program of Scientific Research and Monitoring so that all groups can learn more about the region and determine how and when a sustainable fishery could be initiated.
“The Arctic is special because it is warming faster than probably any other part of the planet, more than twice as fast as the global average,” Balton said.
“A principal objective of the joint program is to determine how the ecosystems – and I use that word in plural, because there are probably more than one – in the central Arctic Ocean are changing,” he continued, adding that the new project will work in collaboration with existing national Arctic science programs, such as those by the US and Russia.
On top of fostering an exchange of findings, creating the joint venture as a part of the agreement was a strategic decision to ensure that Arctic research receives adequate funding and resources in the long term.
Enforcement of the ban will not commence until several details are worked out, which could take some time, according to Balton. In the interim, the formation of the joint program is underway.