Canada and other Arctic nations will work together on major search and rescue operations in the Arctic, under an international treaty signed by eight nations Thursday in Greenland.

Foreign affairs ministers and other leaders from Canada, the United States, Russia and five other northern countries signed the search and rescue treaty during a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Nuuk, Greenland.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Canada's Leona Aglukkaq were at the Nuuk meeting, along with foreign affairs ministers from Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark.

Increased marine traffic

The new treaty, which would require Arctic Council nations to co-ordinate with each other in the event of a plane crash, cruise ship sinking, big oil spill or other major disaster, is the first legally binding agreement to be reached by the circumpolar intergovernmental forum.

The need for a search and rescue agreement comes as shrinking sea ice in recent years has opened up Arctic waterways to more marine traffic, including shipping vessels and cruise ships.

"As the ice melts and will continue to melt, we can expect increased human activity at sea, with the increased risks that accidents may happen," Danish Foreign Affairs Minister Lene Espersen told reporters on Thursday.

Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Jonas Gahr Store said each participating nation, including Canada and the U.S., will have to ensure it can live up to its responsibilities under the search and rescue treaty.

"That is a cumbersome and long and expensive process that each state has to take on, but I think with this as a legal basis, we have the foundation to sort out what we have to do back home," Store said.

Oil spill task force struck

The leaders meeting in Nuuk also agreed to set up a task force to work on an Arctic oil spill preparedness and response agreement.

Given companies' growing interest in drilling for offshore oil and gas in the Arctic, northern countries need to work fast on an oil spill plan, said Alexander Shestakov, director of the Global Arctic Program with the World Wildlife Fund.

"From our point of view, the changes [in] the Arctic are so rapid, the governments should really follow this pace rather than be too accurate and too slow in some decisions," he said.

Aglukkaq, who was health minister before the recent federal election, was representing Canada at the Arctic Council meeting because former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon lost his seat.

An Inuk from Nunavut, Aglukkaq wore a sealskin vest and coat in Nuuk, saying she wants European members of the Arctic Council to know that Canada opposes the European Union's ban on Canadian seal products.

"You're taking something that we, as Inuit people, have eaten for thousands and thousands of years, and other countries are making decisions to ban that, so there is an impact," Aglukkaq said Thursday.

New direction for council

Observers in Nuuk said Thursday's meeting shows that the Arctic Council is moving in a new direction, in which there will be more action than talk.

Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak said in a statement that she welcomes the "trend within the [Arctic] Council for more policy-making" as a step towards a stronger council.

"It is historic for the Arctic Council to agree today to a binding legal instrument," Aariak said.

"I look forward to the work of the next task force towards another potential agreement for 2013 on emergency response and preparedness," she added.

"This issue is important for Nunavut, as it witnesses the prospect of exploration drilling for oil and gas in its adjacent and internal waters."

Inuit call for sustainable development

On Wednesday, Inuit leaders issued a joint declaration on Arctic resource development that says they support offshore oil and gas exploration as long as it's sustainable — culturally as well as environmentally — and strict safety measures are put in place.

But Jimmy Stotts, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Alaska, said he does not think Arctic oil and gas development is sustainable right now.

"We're not convinced, at least in Alaska, that it's sustainable so far, despite statements that are made by government or industry or others," Stotts told reporters. "We're still waiting for somebody to prove to us that they can clean up an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean."

Shell has set its sights on the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the northern Alaskan coast, while BP is trying to work out an arrangement in Russia's Arctic.

Meanwhile, oil rigs are already heading west of Greenland, where Cairn Energy plans to drill four holes this year. The government in Greenland has authorized oil and gas exploration in the area, despite public concerns that development is moving too quickly and could harm Arctic wildlife.

With files from the CBC's Patricia Bell