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From IISD's SDG Knowledge Hub

3 October 2018: The Governments of Canada, China, Denmark, Iceland, Japan, Norway, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Korea and the US and the EU signed an agreement to prevent unregulated commercial fishing on the high seas in the central Arctic Ocean. This agreement is the first to use a legally binding, precautionary approach to protect an area from commercial fishing before fishing has begun in the area.

Negotiations on an agreement took place over two years. In July 2015, the five coastal countries of the central Arctic Ocean, Canada, Norway, Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands and Greenland), the Russian Federation and the US, agreed on a non-legally binding Oslo Declaration, which recognizes that other governments might have an interest in fisheries in the Arctic. In December 2015, those five countries as well as China, Iceland, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the EU, began negotiations towards a legally binding instrument. On 30 November 2017, the ten countries concluded the negotiations. They signed the agreement during a signing ceremony on 3 October in Ilulissat, Greenland.

The agreement will help safeguard the Arctic marine ecosystem for future generations.

According to the US Department of State, the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean have traditionally been covered in ice year round. Recently, the Arctic sea ice has been melting, leaving large areas of the high seas uncovered for parts of the year. Polar scientists confirmed in October 2018 that sea ice in the Arctic had reached its annual minimum, with the joint sixth lowest extent on record. Levels of ice in 2018 match ice minimums from 2008 and 2010, illustrating a trend of record lows in the last decade and a trend of diminishing summer ice cover and thickness. As a result, summer navigation is possible across parts of the Arctic that were previously ice. Fishing does not currently take place in the area but the Arctic is expected to become more attractive to commercial fishing fleets in the future, especially as climate change causes fish stocks to move further north in response to warming lower latitudes.

Under the agreement, the Parties commit to not initiate commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean until there is more knowledge about the fish stocks in the area. As part of the agreement, the Parties will establish a joint scientific research and monitoring program to improve understanding of the area’s ecosystems and determine if fish stocks can be sustainably harvested. This program is expected to give Parties time to develop a better understanding of the area’s marine ecosystems and species to inform conservation and management measures. The agreement is scheduled to last for 16 years and to be automatically renewed every five years until a science-based fisheries quota and rules are put in place or a country objects. The agreement will enter into force when all ten Parties ratify it.

Denmark’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Anders Samuelsen, reflected that melting ice in the Arctic will bring new opportunities for fisheries and transport but also challenges. He recognized the need to “manage both the opportunities and the challenges,” noting that “that is exactly what” this new agreement does. The European Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, said “protection of the Arctic was a significant gap in international ocean governance.” He called on all Parties to swiftly ratify the agreement to “safeguard this fragile marine ecosystem for future generations.” [US Department of State Press Release] [Government of Canada Press Release] [EU Press Release] [Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark Press Release]