International Agreement Bans Commercial Fishing in the Arctic

Public Domain. U.S. Geological Survey / Flickr

As melting ice opens up new potential for exploitation in the Arctic, a new ban aims to protect much of the fragile ecosystem.

It's a case of "great news!" ... that comes with the poignant follow-up of "oh, that's rough" ... and then a denouement of "ok, at least we're thinking this mess through."

Great that a group of nine nations plus the EU have come together to sign an agreement to ban commercial fishing. Rough that the need to do so arises from the fact that a warming climate has opened the Arctic to vessels that would have been unable to navigate there previously. OK that the powers that be are thinking ahead and putting protections in place before things get completely tanked.

Welcome to the new normal.

Fiona Harvey reports on the agreement for The Guardian, explaining that the moratorium on Arctic fishing will safeguard an area about the size of the Mediterranean for at least the next 16 years.

With sea ice levels consistently hitting new lows over the last decade, large vessels are now able to navigate areas that were previously all ice. In August, the first shipping container ship slipped through the once-frozen route from Vladivostok, Russia to St Petersburg. (Read more here: Maersk to send first container ship through the Northeast Passage.)

While there is no fishing there now, it's expected to become an attractive spot for commercial fishing in the years to come. "Climate change is causing major fish stocks including cod and halibut to move further north as lower latitudes warm," writes Harvey, "and overfishing in traditional grounds makes potential new areas appealing." Because of course, just think of all that nature, exposed and vulnerable once its protective cloak of ice has melted into the sea.

Following years of talks, the moratorium was signed in Greenland by the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, China and the EU. The countries will also begin a joint program for scientific monitoring of the area.

One of the ban's negotiators, former US ambassador for oceans and fisheries, David Balton, told Pew Charitable Trusts NGO: “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.”

The idea of opening up the Arctic to oil drilling is a very troubling prospect, especially given that current governance of the Arctic is not established in international law – it was never needed before. Thankfully, the new moratorium is one of the first steps to bring legal protection to the area’s fragile environment, Harvey notes.

May it not be the last.