Dealing with the Doughnut Hole: A Fishing Agreement for the Central Arctic

Reykjavík Harbour (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

As the polar ice cap continues to melt at record levels during the summer months, the question of how potential fishing areas in the central Arctic Ocean (CAO) has been growing in urgency in recent years. Thus, many observers welcomed the news this week that an international agreement to regulate and restrict fishing in the region had been completed. The deal, agreed in Washington following six rounds of negotiations, specifically addresses the part of the Arctic known as the ‘doughnut hole’ since it lies outside of the territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the Arctic littoral states. With the continuing erosion of the ice cap, this area comprising approximately 2.8 million square kilometres is becoming more accessible to ships. At present, an average of forty percent of the central Arctic is open water during summer months, especially in regions just north of Alaska and Siberia.

In July 2015, the governments of the five littoral states, Canada, Denmark (Faroe Islands/Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States, signed an declaration [pdf] in Oslo to observe a de facto moratorium on commencing any central Arctic fishing until further study could be carried out on the potential environmental impact, while observing existing regulations in the Arctic including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

Despite worsening relations between the United States and Russia after the Ukraine crises, it was acknowledged that the Arctic governments needed to get ahead of this issue before conditions were such that commercial fishing in the Arctic could potentially become commonplace. It was the same concept followed by Washington and Moscow of ‘checking your politics at the door’ that allowed this expanded agreement to be concluded. As well, American support for the agreement is noteworthy given recent policies of the Trump government, which has embraced a more tepid approach to global environmental protection, including in the Arctic.

In addition to the five littoral states, the Washington agreement was signed by the governments of China, the European Union, Iceland, Japan and South Korea, all states which have extensive fishing interests which may expand into the Arctic in the future. The three Asian governments have increased their diplomatic and economic interests in the Arctic in recent years, and have considered the far north an area of opportunity for energy and shipping as well as fishing. Over the past two years the Northeast Asian states have also begun to coordinate their Arctic policies in response to the growing importance of the far north. Recently, China also announced that the Arctic, specifically the Northern Sea Route, would be incorporated into its rapidly-developing ‘Belt and Road’ trade route system. Fishing also remains the lifeblood of the Icelandic economy as well as an area of political sensitivity, as evidenced by a nine-week fishers’ strike earlier this year.

Representatives of Arctic indigenous peoples from Alaska, Canada and Russia also participated in the negotiations. In July 2014 that the Inuit Circumpolar Council called for a moratorium as part of the Kitigaaryuit Declaration [pdf] signed in Inuvik. Under the terms of the agreement, commercial fishing in the central Arctic is to be banned for sixteen years, with the pact subject to renewal in 2033, and then again every five years unless there is dissent or the legal conditions in the region change.

The agreement was a nod to a similar deal signed in October 2016 by twenty-six governments which created a marine protective area (MPA) spanning approximately 1.55 million square kilometres, (with 1.5 million square kilometres set aside as a no-fishing zone), in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica. However, the difference between that deal, which entered into effect on 1 December, and the one covering the CAO is that fishing in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica had taken place for decades, whereas the Washington agreement seeks to provide a healthy amount of breathing space in order to forestall a feared scramble for fish stocks in the Arctic. The agreement, should it be signed by all parties, would represent not only a giant step for environmental protection in the Arctic but also for preventive economic diplomacy in the region.

[Addendum (9 December): The Chair’s Statement from the Washington DC meeting can be read here [pdf].