© M. Hoppman

Exploring the Arctic Ocean: The agreement that protects an unknown ecosystem

A thick layer of multiyear sea ice once completely covered the central Arctic Ocean. But as the ice continues to retreat, waters that were previously only accessible to heavy icebreakers could soon open up and attract commercial fishing vessels. Yet, little is known about the ecosystem emerging below the ice and unregulated fishing could have detrimental impacts.

This was a concern to the Arctic coastal states. Thus, they decided to prevent commercial fishing until better scientific knowledge was available and to engage other states with distant-water fishing capacity as well. The result was the International Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Fishing in the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean, signed in 2018 by Canada, Iceland, the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, the United States and the Russian Federation, as well as China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union.

We asked Maya Gold for an introduction to the milestone agreement. Maya Gold is a Senior Advisor within International and Intergovernmental Affairs at Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Canada’s Head of Delegation to our Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group.

Map showing area covered by the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. (PAME/Arctic Council Secretariat)

In brief, could you explain what the International Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Fishing in the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean is?

The legally binding Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean was signed in Ilulissat, Greenland on October 3rd, 2018. Once it enters into force, the agreement will commit the parties to not authorize any vessel flying its flag to engage in commercial fishing in the high seas portion of the central Arctic Ocean. The agreement will be in place for up to sixteen years, renewable in increments of five years.

This agreement provides a framework for the parties to cooperate to better understand the ecosystems in and adjacent to the central Arctic Ocean. It prevents commercial fishing from occurring until adequate scientific information is available to inform decision making in relation to the viability and sustainability of any potential future fishing activities in the agreement area. Parties intend to meet at least every two years to review implementation progress and the scientific information developed through a joint program of scientific research and monitoring.

To bring the area into perspective: The central Arctic Ocean is the largest area of high seas in the Arctic , it is surrounded entirely by the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (in respect of Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Norway, the Russian Federation, and the United States, and spans an area of approximately 2.8 million square kilometers – virtually the same size as the Mediterranean Sea.

Why was there a need for such an agreement?

Under the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), coastal states can exercise jurisdiction over fisheries zones extending 200 nautical miles seaward from coastal baselines. In some instances, the EEZs of adjacent and/or opposite states are geographically positioned such that they totally enclose an area of the “high seas” outside their fisheries jurisdiction. However, despite being entirely surrounded by the EEZ’s of states, vessels from any state in principle have the right to fish in these high seas areas, unless they have entered into an international agreement specifying otherwise.

The central Arctic Ocean has historically been an area completely covered with multiyear sea ice and inaccessible except to heavy icebreakers. With climate change, the ice in this area has been rapidly disappearing, with most recent studies indicating the area could be completely free of ice in the coming years, some predictions as early as 2030. In fact, there are now parts of the high seas in the central Arctic Ocean which are already free of ice and accessible to vessels in the summer months. With the reduction of ice in the Arctic Ocean, it is now feasible that fishing vessels could enter the central Arctic Ocean and fish. The lack of scientific knowledge about the marine ecosystem and the species found in the Arctic Ocean means that such a scenario could be catastrophic. For the duration of this agreement, such a scenario will be prevented, since the main objective of this agreement is to prevent commercial fishing from occurring in the near term until better scientific knowledge could be gained about the ecosystem.

How does it tie into other international agreements for the Arctic Ocean?

The three other international legally binding agreements which are specific to the Arctic and were negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council are the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, and the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation.

Given the operational nature of those agreements, there is in fact no substantial overlap between those agreements and the central Arctic Ocean fisheries agreement. Although by name you would expect the scientific cooperation agreement to be relevant, that agreement is rather about the movement of people and equipment for scientific purposes between the Arctic States, and would not be relevant for a science program in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean, which is governed by the freedom of marine scientific research under UNCLOS.

A notable difference between the these three agreements negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council and the central Arctic Ocean fisheries agreement is the membership. The fisheries agreement signatories do not mirror the Arctic Council’s membership, rather it consists of Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation, the United States, Iceland, China, Japan, Korea and the European Union.

When and by whom was it initiated?

In 2010, the United States effectively closed its EEZ North of Alaska to commercial fishing. Canada followed suit in 2014 with the “Beaufort Sea Fish Management Framework”, which was a partnership between the Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, the Inuvialuit Game Council and the Fisheries Joint Management Committee. It determined: “Potential commercial fisheries will only be considered in light of scientifically supportable estimates of surplus and sustainable stocks” (Fisheries and Oceans Canada 2009).

Following several rounds of bilateral discussions, in February 2014 Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States issued the “Nuuk Statement” calling for action on the central Arctic Ocean issue. These same states signed the non-binding “Oslo Declaration” the following year, in which they agreed not to allow their commercial fleets to fish in the central Arctic Ocean until there would be sound scientific base and an appropriate management regime in place (Norway 2015). The Oslo Declaration also recognized that other nations/jurisdictions with the distant-water fishing capacity needed to be engaged on this issue.

In December 2015, negotiations began among the five states that signed the Oslo Declaration as well as China, the European Union (which has competence over fisheries policy on behalf of its member states), Iceland, Japan and the Republic of Korea. David Balton, with the US State Department, was the Chair of the negotiation process and it was the US who initiated the discussions among the coastal states, which resulted in the Oslo declaration.

Who are the signatories?

  • Canada
  • Iceland
  • The Kingdom of Denmark (in respect of Greenland and the Faroe Islands)
  • Norway
  • The Russian Federation
  • The United States of America
  • China
  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • The European Union

What is the current status of the agreement and when will it entered into force?

As of August 2020, nine of the ten signatories have completed the ratification process for the agreement. The agreement will enter into force 30 days after receipt of the tenth and final instrument of ratification (once all ten parties ratify) and will remain in effect for 16 years. It will be automatically extended for additional 5-year periods if the parties agree.

Read the full agreement here.

Title photo: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Mario Hoppmann (CC-BY 4.0)