Why an International Fisheries Agreement Is Needed in the Central Arctic Ocean

Here are answers to frequently asked questions about The Pew Charitable Trusts' Oceans North International campaign to develop a precautionary international fisheries agreement that would prevent the start of unregulated commercial fishing in most of the Central Arctic Ocean.

The Arctic Ocean

What are the international waters of the Central Arctic Ocean?

The Arctic Ocean is encircled by the coastal states of Canada, U.S., Russia, Greenland and Norway. Waters within 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles) of shore are the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of these countries. But beyond that lies 2.8 million square kilometers (1.1 million square miles) of international waters. Ninety-two percent of the international waters in the Central Arctic Ocean have no existing regional agreement to regulate commercial fishing. This did not matter until now because the area has been covered with permanent ice for all of human history. 

How fast is the ice melting in the Central Arctic Ocean?

In September 2012, 40 percent of the Central Arctic Ocean was open water. This open water area emerged above the Bering Strait adjoining the entire maritime boundary of the U.S., three-quarters of Russia’s maritime boundary and nearly one third of Canada’s. 

When was the last time this area was free of permanent ice?

Sea ice has been a feature of the Arctic Ocean for at least 47 million years. The best current estimates are that there has been at least some sea ice year-round in the Arctic for more than 100,000 years. In other words, the species that thrive in the Arctic today have evolved with sea ice as a constant, reliable feature of their environment.

Isn't the Central Arctic Ocean a biological desert with few fish anyway?

The Central Arctic Ocean includes both deep basins and shallower continental shelves where most of the world’s fishing takes place. Nearly 25 percent of the area is shallower than 2000 meters and could be fished using current technology. A lot of this shallower water is in the area that has lost summer sea ice in recent years. The combination of reduced ice, greater biological productivity and fishable depths means that the waters north of the Chukchi Sea – adjacent to the U.S., Russian and Canadian maritime boundaries north of Bering Strait -- are likely to have the greatest fisheries potential in the coming years.

Although the deep waters of the Arctic Basin are low in nutrients and productivity, fish, birds and mammals use this area. Removing fish and altering habitat in this sensitive environment could affect the entire food web, including ringed seals, polar bears, and beluga whales. In fact, low productivity coupled with relatively long life spans of many Arctic species means that they are highly susceptible to rapid overharvesting. Such impacts would not be limited to the offshore waters of the Central Arctic Ocean. Many of the birds and mammals in that region also migrate to and along the Arctic coast. There, they are important to the subsistence way of life for Arctic coastal peoples who have used these resources for thousands of years. If the habitat or prey of birds and mammals are disrupted in the Central Arctic, the impacts may be felt by coastal communities.

What do scientists say?

More than 2,000 scientists from around the world have signed an open letter (PDF) to the leaders of Arctic countries calling for an international fisheries management agreement to be put in place before unregulated fishing can damage the ecosystem.

The International Waters of the Central Arctic Ocean

What does the phrase "international waters of the Central Arctic Ocean" refer to?

The international waters of the Arctic Ocean are the 2.8 million square kilometers (1.1 million square miles) in the Central Arctic Ocean beyond the EEZs of the five Arctic coastal states.

Even though part of the area is ice-free in September, isn't commercial fishing still decades away?

Melting pack ice means there are fewer physical barriers to fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean. In the summer of 2012, 40 percent of the Central Arctic Ocean was open water. Much of this was on the Pacific side of the Arctic within range of offshore fleets from Pacific Rim nations. If commercial fishing starts before adequate scientific knowledge is available and appropriate management measures are in place, it would pose a major threat to an ecosystem already stressed by climate change.

Isn't this area too far away for commercial fishing boats to travel?

Not at all. Fleets of large factory processors range the world for protein sources. For example, factory trawlers from Chinese ports travel 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) to catch krill near Antarctica. It’s only 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) from China to the part of the Central Arctic Ocean that was ice-free in 2012.

Arctic Fishing Regulations

Isn’t it premature to discuss a fisheries agreement for international waters in the Central Arctic Ocean when the final boundaries are still being argued over by Arctic coastal states?

No. The boundary for international waters in the Arctic is already set as the ocean beyond the EEZs of the five coastal states. Several of these countries are submitting claims to extend their continental shelves, but this applies only to the seabed. For the purposes of commercial fishing, the water column in the Central Arctic Ocean will remain international waters regardless of the outcome of these claims.

Don’t fishing rules already apply in part of the Central Arctic Ocean?

Yes. A small slice of the Central Arctic Ocean – roughly 8 percent -- is within the area overseen by the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) and under fisheries regulation. This area of the high seas is predominately deep water and remains inaccessible to commercial fishing due to persistent ice. The question that remains is: What should be done about the 92 percent of the Central Arctic Ocean that has no regulation for commercial fisheries?

How can fishing begin in the Central Arctic Ocean without an international agreement or regulations?

Unless an international fisheries agreement is in place, the high seas are open to fishing. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a binding agreement ratified by 161 countries, empowers regulation of fisheries in international waters through regional agreements negotiated between countries. That’s what is needed in the international Arctic.

How can countries legally exercise control over fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean?

The conventional approach to managing fisheries in international waters is for countries to negotiate multilateral agreements. Arctic states should take the lead and initiate that process for the Central Arctic Ocean. A key element is to ensure that fishing levels are initially set at zero to prevent damage from exploratory fishing in the absence of scientific data.

Aren’t new agreements unnecessary because countries ban their own vessels from fishing in high seas areas unless there’s a fisheries agreement or management system in place?

No. International law does not preclude fishing boats from entering the Central Arctic Ocean. Norway is the only country with a domestic law barring its fishing vessels from working in unregulated parts of the oceans. An international fisheries agreement is the simplest and most practical way to prevent commercial fishing from starting in this region.

Why suggest a new international Arctic fisheries agreement when the Arctic Council is already in place?

Founded in 1996, the Arctic Council provides an important high-level forum where Arctic countries and indigenous peoples can discuss issues -- but not make binding decisions. The Arctic Council does not manage resources directly and is not authorized or financed to oversee international fisheries. When it considered this issue in 2007, the council decided not to get involved. The conventional way under international law to develop a new management regime where none exists is through an international fisheries agreement. By preventing commercial fishing from starting in international Arctic waters, such an agreement would preserve options for developing effective fisheries management in the future.

New Solutions

Are there any northern models for international fisheries agreements that could be applied in the Central Arctic Ocean?

Yes. In the 1980s, unregulated fishing by Poland, South Korea, Japan and other countries in the international waters of the Bering Sea severely undermined pollock stocks in just a few years. Russia and the U.S. persuaded these nations to sign the Central Bering Sea Pollock Agreement to close this area to fishing until scientific data and management measures ensured a sustainable approach. Unfortunately, the damage was done and the area remains closed to fishing today.

Which countries agree that a precautionary fisheries agreement is needed before fishing starts in the Central Arctic Ocean?

Momentum toward an international Arctic fisheries instrument is building, including the following positive developments:

  • In March 2014, officials from the five countries surrounding the Central Arctic Ocean (Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, and Greenland/Denmark) forged a consensus on the need to adopt a new international accord to prevent commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean until adequate scientific research and management measures are in place. They pledged to issue a Ministerial Declaration in 2014 as well as to convene a meeting of interested Arctic and non-Arctic countries to discuss the new measures.

    This consensus flows from extensive discussion about the issue since 2007 and sets the stage for Arctic and non-Arctic countries to take precautionary action.

What is The Pew Charitable Trusts' Oceans North International campaign doing to work towards an international fisheries agreement in the Central Arctic Ocean?

We are working with representatives of Arctic coastal states, scientists, the fishing industry and indigenous peoples to achieve expanded support for an agreement that will protect the international waters of the Central Arctic Ocean and their living marine resources by:

  • Prohibiting commercial fisheries until the parties agree otherwise.
  • Fostering an international scientific research program to establish a baseline of information about fish and other living marine resources.
  • Developing conservation and management measures to ensure that commercial fishing will begin only if it can be conducted sustainably.
  • Establishing robust monitoring and enforcement to gauge the success of the agreement.