Canada is preparing to join the United States and Denmark in pressing for a moratorium on commercial fishing in the international waters of the High Arctic as climate change makes their bounty accessible for the first time in more than 800,000 years.
Representatives of the federal Fisheries Department will take part in a meeting in Greenland next week where Russia and Norway will be urged to join the other three Arctic states in support of a proposed Arctic fisheries agreement.
It would prevent commercial fisheries from operating beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zones that extend from the northern shorelines of the five countries until there has been a full assessment of the fish stocks that are there and how they can be harvested sustainably.
Gail Shea, the federal Fisheries Minister, said in an e-mail on Friday that the government sees the meeting as an opportunity to advance discussions on the sustainability of potential high-seas fisheries in the Arctic,
including "the proposal for an interim prohibition on commercial fishing until such time it is determined if a fisheries management organization or arrangement is warranted."
Two years ago, when more than 2,000 international scientists were calling for the moratorium to protect the fragile polar ecosystem, and when the United States and Denmark were both endorsing such a measure, the federal Conservative government offered no definitive response.
But Canada's position has evolved significantly since then, says Scott Highleyman, the international Arctic director for Pew Charitable Trusts, a U.S.-based environmental organization. The Canadian government, Mr. Highleyman said, has become "a global leader in Arctic marine conservation."
If the five Arctic countries could agree next week to take a common approach, they could make a strong case for a moratorium to the rest of the world, he said.
Some academics and environmentalists suggest the promotion of fossil fuels and an unwillingness on the part of Arctic nations, including Canada, to do more to reduce carbon emissions has been a major cause of rapid melting in the Far North – that the seas around the North Pole would not be opening at their current rate if governments would take a harder line on greenhouse gases.
The Arctic is warming almost twice as fast as the rest of the planet and some scientists estimate the region could be ice-free during the summer within 10 to 30 years.
But Mr. Highleyman said it is important to give credit where it is due and, in terms of protecting Arctic waters, Canada is responding.
Trevor Taylor, the policy director for the Pew's Oceans North Canada project, said the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) spent part of this year consulting with Inuit groups and territorial governments about a potential moratorium. In recent teleconferences, said Mr. Taylor, Fisheries officials have said they believe fishing outside the 200-mile limit should be prevented until there are assurances it will not adversely affect the activity within Canadian waters.
Patrick McGuinness, the president of the Fisheries Council of Canada, said his organization fully supports an agreement. "If that area does become accessible to commercial fisheries," said Mr. McGuinness, "we should, from the beginning, start to develop a framework among the countries on how to manage that evolution."