Historic Central Arctic Fishing Ban Protects 1.1 Million Square Miles of Ocean

Greenland officials and international partners signed the ban this past week, creating 1.1 million square miles (2.8 million sq km) of protected ocean.

Nine nations and the European Union signed the agreement, which sets a moratorium on fishing in the newly opened areas of the central Arctic region until scientific studies reach a firm consensus on what fishing might mean for the region and whether it is viable.

This does not necessarily preclude fishing operations, then, but rather stops countries pillaging these waters and polluting what may be a vital haven for fish stocks.

These protections actually stem from policies put in place under the Obama administration in 2009, which sought to create a framework for what should be done for newly opened stretches of water that have international interest.

The central Arctic region is one such territory that has opened up due to rising temperatures melting the ice cover. There hasn’t been any commercial fishing in these waters yet, but international interest has grown, with Russia, Denmark, China, Japan and even US vessels setting their sights on those waters.

The non-partisan organization, Pew, has worked behind the scenes for a moratorium until scientific analyses can be completed. Pew praised this move as an example of science-based policymaking that shows that when we cooperate, we can make sensible decisions without closing off future opportunities.

“As new open waters emerge at the top of the world, international leaders have agreed that it would be risky and unwise to allow commercial fisheries to operate in the Arctic before scientists have established a baseline for monitoring the health of the region’s marine ecosystem,” Steve Ganey, Pew’s senior director for lands and ocean programs, said in a press release. “By using science-based measures to guide decision-making, the agreement will go a long way toward conserving this unique environment.”

This is also a win for first nation peoples in the region, who had long campaigned against commercial fishing in the area that could drastically deplete fish stocks and damage their way of life.

So, what does the Arctic fishing ban mean in practice?

The moratorium proscribes a 16-year window, in which commercial fishing will not be allowed within the central Arctic region. There will also be an option to periodically extend that moratorium.

This is the largest proactive marine protection order of its kind. During the moratorium, scientists will be looking at things like water quality, marine animals that use these waters, fish numbers, the types of fish that may be leaving the area and what fish appear to be migrating into those waters. This latter point is particularly important, both in terms of marine conservation and commercial fishing.

We know that key fish species like cod and halibut are growing restless in their traditional waters and appear to be moving north to colder latitudes. The newly opened stretch of the central Arctic is likely to offer an attractive home for them over the next decade or so.

The opportunity to fish, therefore, becomes obvious. However, scientists will need to look at what a baseline for the fish stocks in the region might look like. This will be critical for setting policies on fishing to make sure that the practice is sustainable and that we don’t overfish and see collapsing fish populations as we have seen over the past several decades in many of the fishing territories surrounding Europe and the Americas.

More broadly, the moratorium is significant for another reason. It is rare that nations as diverse as the US, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Japan, South Korea and China, as well as those represented under the EU, can agree to press the pause button on something that could make money in the short term. That this change was brought forward in a relatively quick manner is a strong indication that, at least in this instance, sustainability is a priority.

David Balton, former US ambassador for oceans and fisheries, has welcomed the adoption of this moratorium and says it puts on the agenda what more we can do to protect this region. “There has been a lot of work in the last decade to try to strengthen various regimes of governance and to improve international cooperation about the Arctic. Is there more that we need to do to improve Arctic governance? That will be a key question.”

One major issue that seems set to dominate future discourse is how the region is opened up to commercial oil exploration. Fishing, while certainly a large industry, pales in comparison to the big money behind Big Oil. With that considerable clout, and with a US President who is now a cheerleader for the manifestly damaging fossil fuel industry, it seems that protecting the Arctic region from those interests will be more difficult.

The fact that the Arctic fishing ban is in effect, where before there was no framework at all, is still a win. We shouldn’t let potential future battles overshadow this move to protect the central Arctic region. Quite simply, any act of global cooperation is a welcome moment of sound policy amid what has been a disturbing year of divisive political discourse.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

38 comments

Mark Donner
Mark Donner5 days ago

Throw Trump and his demons like Zinke in the newly opened areas of the Arctic and tell them you'll give them cheesburgers if they swim home.

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Lisa M
Lisa M5 days ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa M5 days ago

Thanks.

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara6 days ago

keep it in the ground

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara6 days ago

the waters are warming even now

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara6 days ago

th

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara6 days ago

only for a time

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Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson7 days ago

Thank you.

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hELEN h
hELEN hEARFIELD8 days ago

tyfs

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Debbi W
Debbi W8 days ago

Trump won't protect anything but his lies, his businesses/money, then his children (only because they are bending to his will. Nothing like holding out a huge inheritance to get compliance). Read about what Fred, his dad did -- border line financial maneuvering and fraud.

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