Can a Fisheries Agreement help Forestall Militarization on the central Arctic Ocean?

See The Simons Foundation's Arctic Security Briefing Papers for information on military policies and practices in the Arctic region by Ernie Regehr, Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence at The Simons Foundation.


Can a Fisheries Agreement help Forestall Militarization on the central Arctic Ocean?

If the Cold War is truly back, the news has yet to reach the Arctic. In the high north, putative rivals are having a hard time getting over their habit of cooperating. They’ve been at it again, this time agreeing on a set of measures to prevent over-fishing in the soon to be accessible high seas of the Arctic Ocean. The agreement is rightly lauded as another advance in collective Governance in the Arctic. Furthermore, it bolsters hopes that the logic of cooperati0n in support of public safety, environmental protection, and responsible resource extraction will increasingly spill over into security cooperation in the global commons of the Arctic high seas.

Canada’s new defence policy, unveiled this past June, declares “the re-emergence of major power competition.”  The new American national security strategy, unveiled this week, takes up the same theme, insisting that the US faces “growing political, economic, and military competition,” with China and Russia “challeng[ing] American power, influence, and interests.”  A similar strain of worry runs through academic and think tank worlds, frequently including assertions that renewed global rivalry portends heightened state-to-state confrontation in the Arctic.

As climate change renders the region more and more accessible, the argument goes, increased marine traffic and resource exploitation will generate dramatically new levels of commercial competition backed by re-energized geopolitical maneuvering. That, along with Russia’s demonstrated willingness to pursue changes to borders by military means, heightens the risk of military confrontation. But one thing these dire warnings fail to acknowledge is the Arctic region’s inclination toward cooperation.

The region and its international partners have been remarkably pro-active in anticipating and seeking to prevent state-to-state confrontation. The most recent example is the agreement in principle to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries on the Central Arctic Ocean. The Parties to the agreement reached at the end of November (the EU, Canada, China, Denmark, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Russia, and the US) are now embarked on a legal and technical review of the agreement’s provisions and are seeking final approval from their respective governments to sign and ratify the agreement.  It will enter into force once all ten parties have done so.  

The agreement covers an area of 2.8 million square kilometres (about the size of the Mediterranean) and will ensure that no commercial fishing will take place before the necessary scientific work has been done and “appropriate conservation and management measures” are established.  Any subsequent fishing in the high Arctic is to be regulated and supported by scientific information on the sustainability of fish stocks. It is regarded, in the words of the European Commission, as “a first step towards the creation of regional fisheries management organizations for the Central Arctic Ocean.”

The science will be aided by a Joint Program of Scientific Research and Monitoring established by the agreement. Its aim will be to improve understanding of the region’s ecosystem(s) and to determine “whether fish stocks might exist in this area that could be harvested on a sustainable basis.”

The agreement will remain in place for the next 16 years and will be renewable every five years after that, or until those appropriate conservation and management measures are in place. Inuit representatives were consulted and included in the Canadian delegation to the negotiations, and the agreement’s “final text recognizes Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ interests, the value of indigenous knowledge and decision making, and provides for their inclusion in the process moving forward,” according to Canada’s Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Dominic LeBlanc.

The agreement is an example of constructive pre-emption. As the Canadian environmental organization, Oceans North, put it, “this will be the only ocean in the world that humankind have agreed to not fish in until we have a scientific understanding of what’s there and the management regime under which to operate.”  Legislators, scientists, and civil society organizations have long urged Arctic States to apply this “cautionary principle” to the high seas of the Arctic – that is, to act preventively before fishing begins. In 2008 the US Senate called for action to prevent unregulated fishing. In 201o the US closed its Arctic exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to fishing. In 2012, a letter signed by more than 2,000 scientists called for a delay in fishing “until such time as the biology and ecology of the region are understood sufficiently well to allow for setting scientifically sound catch levels.”  In 2014 Canada blocked commercial fishing in its Beaufort Sea EEZ. In July 2015, the five states on the Arctic Ocean issued the Oslo Declaration in which they agreed that there should be a fishing moratorium in the Arctic Ocean until appropriate management measures could be put in place.  Continue reading...



Ernie Regehr, O.C. is Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence at The Simons Foundation, and Research Fellow at the Centre for Peace Advancement, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.