A moratorium on commercial fishing in the High Arctic – which was agreed to but never signed last year, as Russia and Canada squared off over the conflict in Ukraine – is expected to be endorsed this week at a meeting of the five countries with territorial claims around the northern ocean.
Canadian officials will join their counterparts from the United States, Denmark, Norway and Russia in Oslo on Thursday for the anticipated signing of an agreement to block their own ships from dropping their nets in the central Arctic Ocean until the completion of a full scientific assessment of the fish stocks and how they can be sustainably harvested.
The most northern Arctic waters are becoming accessible for the first time in more than 800,000 years as sea ice melts with the onset of global warming. Some scientists predict the Arctic will be ice-free before mid-century, opening the sea to an influx of ships from distant ports – and the accompanying potential for environmental degradation.
While the Arctic countries cannot stop boats from China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union from entering the region, they can put a halt to their own activities and set the template for a binding international agreement. The declaration on the table in Oslo this week would prevent the five signatories from taking part in commercial fishing in waters that lie beyond their northern 200-mile (320-kilometre) exclusive economic zones until the studies have been done.
Canada's Conservative government, which has often been accused of allowing scientific research to take a back seat to economic development, has been hailed as one of the leaders in the effort to keep the Arctic fishery closed, at least temporarily. Canadian officials joined the United States and Denmark in pressing for Russia and Norway to come on board when the five countries met for three days in Greenland in February of last year.
An agreement was reached at the time and was expected to be endorsed a few months later, but that did not happen because the players were sparring over the crisis in Ukraine. By April of this year, Canada was sending troops to train Ukrainian soldiers to fight Russian-backed rebels. And as recently as this week, the Canadian government inked a free-trade deal with Ukraine that will likely be a source of irritation for Russia.
But the adversaries will declare a brief détente in Oslo in the name of Arctic conservation.
"This initiative helps preserve Canadian fisheries in the Arctic and allows Canada to promote and advocate for its interests abroad," said Ted Laking, a spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who until recently was the chair of the eight-member Arctic Council. "That said, Canada has used every opportunity, including the Arctic Council earlier this year, to condemn Russia's unjustified and unacceptable aggression in Ukraine."
Fisheries Minister Gail Shea declined to comment in advance of the meeting. But a spokeswoman for her department said Canada is proud of its international leadership in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. "That is why we support a prohibition on commercial fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean, until we have a better understanding of that area and the changes occurring," Carole Saindon said in an e-mail.
Scott Highleyman, the international Arctic director for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the Arctic countries have agreed that unregulated commercial fishing in the High Arctic is a looming problem. Although there is currently no fishing in the central Arctic, there is also no legal means to prevent it as the sea ice melts, he said.
"Absent of an agreement, I am confident that it would start before anyone was ready for it," he said. "There would be no monitoring and essentially no controls. And everywhere else in the world where we have done it that way it has been an ecological disaster."