That the Arctic contains a wealth of wildlife and spectacular scenery is no secret to anybody reading this. And that its long-term survival is deeply entwined with the climate isn’t, either. And you might well know that the Arctic Ocean is a political hot potato, with five nations— USA, Canada, Norway, Greenland/Denmark, and Russia— all vying for position to extract from it.
What you may not know is that one of the most significant meetings in recent arctic geopolitics just happened, and the United States actually came off as a protagonist.
The Nuuk arctic fisheries meeting could have delivered some major steps toward protecting the vulnerable arctic and its marine life. Yet there was almost no coverage of it in the international media, and the entire proceedings were a wasted opportunity.
What it was all about
The proposal on the table could have helped protect the Arctic Ocean from the ravages of industrial scale fishing vessels, providing a first step towards establishing a sanctuary around the North Pole. Instead the exploitation-centred interests of Norway and Russia won out over the need to put in place essential environmental safety measures.
The meeting was a genuine attempt by the US government to secure a temporary cessation of commercial fishing in the high seas region of the central Arctic Ocean around the North Pole. Currently, the vast area of high seas in the middle of the Arctic Ocean (2.8 million km2) lacks any form of protection, as do most of the high seas.
The plan would have prevented fishing fleets from steaming into newly accessible waters. Those waters have opened up due to melting sea ice. It would have also given scientists time to study fish populations and better understand the marine environment before it’s all gone. The implications would have been profound: a precedent would have been set and a direction established for future agreements on managing the Arctic for other extractive uses as well.
Backed by Science
The plan has also been backed by thousands of scientists. The Pew Environmental Trust’s ‘Oceans North’ initiative played an instrumental role in keeping the initiative alive. Pew facilitated the writing of a letter by over 2000 scientists from 67 countries in support of protection for the central Arctic Ocean basin. It also recommended a fishing moratorium and a precautionary approach. This should have been enough to convince any reasonable bureaucrat.
While the USA, Canada, and Greenland/Denmark have all publicly supported such a move, the ‘rogue states of the Arctic’ — Norway and the Russian Federation — blocked an agreement in defence of their interests of exploitation, exclusion, and domination of the Arctic region. Norway likes to give the impression that it is a responsible ocean nation. However when it comes to protecting international ocean protection, its hands are dirty.
Instead of agreeing to the US proposal and showing leadership in safeguarding the Arctic region, those five nations agreed to develop limp “interim measures.” Many fear that these will be mere greenwashing.
It is essential that the USA, Canada, Norway, Greenland/Denmark, and Russia recognise that business as usual is not going to save the Arctic. The Arctic Ocean does not have the luxury of time on its side, and it cannot afford yet more years of failed governance regimes in the Arctic.
A temporary stop to commercial fishing is urgently needed to cease the charge of industrial fishing vessels into the Arctic. It must stay in place until effective rules and regulations are developed and implemented to protect the area from all extractive industries, including oil drilling. Any Arctic rescue plan will also be incomplete without the creation of a global sanctuary in the high seas of the North Pole, much like the European Parliament endorsed earlier this month.
Top photo: the capital of Greenland, Nuuk.