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It’s not every day that we have reason to celebrate good news about the ocean, but this week, we do. A new international fishing agreement protecting the Arctic high seas is a game-changer for marine life and the Indigenous peoples who rely on it for social, cultural, economic and nutritional sustenance.
On Thursday November 30, 2017, Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States, all five Arctic coastal states, negotiated a new and legally binding commercial fishing ban on the international zone of the Arctic Ocean. The agreement also includes South Korea, China, Japan, the European Union and Iceland and lasts for 16 years, automatically renewing every five years unless a country objects or until a plan for sustainable fishing is in place. So, why is this so crucial for Arctic communities and marine life?
As Arctic sea ice continues to melt away during the summer months, there has been considerable concern that the central Arctic Ocean could become a free-for-all for large commercial fishing fleets. It is the only largely un-fished ocean left on earth and there is little data on species abundance and population trends in a region that, until recently, had been inaccessible to large-scale fishing due to the extent of sea ice.
Each of the five Arctic coastal countries has an Exclusive Economic Zone extending from their coastlines, but a large portion (1.7 million square kilometres) of the Arctic Ocean, often referred to as the “doughnut hole”, is considered high seas and not under any one country’s jurisdiction. This is the area of concern.
In July 2015, the five coastline countries took a big step toward protecting the Arctic Ocean by signing the Declaration Concerning the Prevention of Unregulated High Seas Fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean (Oslo Declaration). The Oslo Declaration was a voluntary agreement by these countries not to do any commercial fishing until there was enough scientific information to ensure it could be done in a sustainable way. It was certainly a step in the right direction. It was not, however, a “moratorium” or a “ban” and it applied only to the five Arctic coastal states. This left the door open for other countries with large fishing fleets to operate within the region of the Arctic high seas.
But this week’s new agreement is significant for four key reasons:
It is a binding agreement and includes countries surrounding the Arctic and countries known to fish the high seas.
It is an example of a precautionary approach and addresses a potentially major fishery before any fishing takes place.
It included significant input from Indigenous peoples in the circumpolar Arctic.
It shows that, when it comes to the Arctic, countries are still willing to set aside other differences to identify and address mutual goals.
For those of us concerned about the health of our world’s oceans, here is a reminder that even when we seem surrounded by environmental “doom and gloom”, there is reason for optimism and hope for the future of our planet. So let’s take a moment to celebrate!