On Aug. 31, Secretary of State John Kerry will host a meeting of foreign ministers in Anchorage to discuss the future of the Arctic. This event will focus on issues of vital importance to all Alaskans, from climate change to community health and economic development. One session of particular interest to Alaska will address the prospect of potential commercial fisheries in the international waters of the Central Arctic Ocean, or CAO.
This conference comes on the heels of the signing of a declaration on July 16 by the five Arctic coastal nations that says they will not authorize their vessels to fish in the CAO until there is sufficient scientific information to determine that fishing can be conducted sustainably. These countries, Canada, Denmark on behalf of Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the United States are those that border the international waters of the CAO. Under international law, especially with respect to fisheries, it is appropriate for these countries to take the lead in setting the conservation agenda for how and when fisheries might be conducted in the CAO, just as Alaska and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council took the lead for the United States years earlier.
In 2007, a year with dramatic loss of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea and Arctic Ocean, the North Pacific council began work on the Arctic Fishery Management Plan. The plan went into effect in 2009 closing all U.S. Arctic waters (from 3 to 200 miles offshore), from the Bering Strait to the Canadian border, to commercial fishing. The council based its actions on concerns about the rapidly changing Arctic environment, the lack of scientific information to properly manage fisheries in the region, and the potential impacts of fishing on the subsistence way of life for indigenous peoples and coastal communities in the far North.
This unprecedented action was widely praised and supported by the Alaska fishing industry, Alaska Native organizations and coastal communities, conservation groups, and other stakeholders. It also inspired further action on the part of the U.S., this time in the international arena. As the sea ice retreated from the Arctic Ocean just north of Alaska, concerns began to surface that distant-water fishing fleets could move into the area. After all, fleets from Asia and Europe travel all the way to Antarctica for krill and other fish resources. The Arctic just north of Alaska is far closer and becoming more accessible as the ice retreats.
The prospect of large scale commercial fisheries just beyond the boundary of our Arctic 200-mile zone brought to mind the tragedy Alaska experienced in the so-called Bering Sea Donut Hole decades earlier. In that instance, unregulated fleets from China, Japan, Poland, and South Korea overfished the Aleutian Basin pollock stock in the international waters of the central Bering Sea. These waters are completely surrounded by the 200-mile zones of Russia and the United States. Those two nations worked together as post-Cold War partners, to engage the fishing nations to come to an agreement to prevent overfishing. But despite the best efforts of Russia and the U.S., that agreement was not reached until the damage had been done and the pollock stock collapsed. The pollock have not recovered, and that fishery remains closed to this day.
With this lesson in mind, Sen. Ted Stevens, joined by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Congressman Don Young and members of the Pacific Northwest congressional delegations passed legislation that called upon the U.S. to begin negotiations to secure a binding international agreement to close the CAO to commercial fishing until there was adequate science to ensure sustainable fishing.
As the current and former chairs of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, it is our hope that such a binding agreement can be put in place before fishing begins in the CAO. The declaration by the five Arctic coastal nations is a good and proper first step, but now the discussion needs to be broadened to include countries like China, Japan, South Korea, the EU, and Iceland. While these countries and entities do not border the Arctic Ocean, they have an interest in its future. If such an agreement is reached, then Alaska can be proud of the role it has taken once again to lead the way for sound and scientifically based conservation and management of ocean resources.
Dan Hull is current chair of the NPFMC. David Benton, Stephanie Madsen, and Eric Olson are former council chairs. Together, they chaired the council from 2000 to the present. Hull also participates in the Arctic Council Task Force on Marine Cooperation; Madsen was a member of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission; and Benton is a member of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.
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