Commercial fishing banned in central Arctic Ocean as countries look to build scientific knowledge

A group of countries have come together to ban commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean until there is greater scientific understanding of the area and its ecosystems.

Norway, Russia, the U.S. and Canada among the countries who signed onto the ban

Melt pond on Arctic sea ice. (Stefan Hendricks/Alfred Wegener Institute)

A director at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) says that a new international agreement to ban commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean is an important precaution to take as ice in the area melts — opening it up to the possibility of fishing for the first time. 

"We know that we do not have enough information about ecosystems or the fish stock there to make wise fisheries management decisions," said Justin Turple in an interview earlier this month with Qulliq, CBC Nunavut's morning radio show. 

Turple is the director of international fisheries policy at the DFO. 

The agreement, which was signed in 2018 and came into force late last month, is the first of its kind, blocking any kind of fishing activity before it can start in the first place. 

It includes the so-called Arctic Five — Canada, Norway, Russia, Denmark, and the United States — as well as the major fishing nations: Iceland, Japan, South Korea, China and the European Union.

Before any kind of fishing can begin, they've agreed to wait until there is a greater understanding of the area — which measures roughly 2.8 million square kilometres — and its ecosystems. 

The agreement will be valid for an initial period of 16 years, after which there will be the option to renew every five years. 

The agreement covers an area roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea (Marine Policy)

Turple said scientific research will help inform decision-making moving forward. 

"[The agreement] has triggered a two-year window where all the parties will develop a joint program to undertake a study and research to best inform decisions down the road about ecosystems in the Arctic, what fish may or may not be there and what fisheries might be possible on a sustainable level," he said. 

Traditional knowledge to be taken into account

Along with banning commercial fishing, the agreement also provides a framework to account for Indigenous and local knowledge in that resarch, and requires engagement with Arctic Indigenous Peoples. 

The DFO consulted with the Inuit Circumpolar Council, territorial governments, the fishing industry and environmental groups leading up to the ratification of the agreement.

Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, the legal representative for Inuit in Nunavut, was part of the working group, and its vice-president James Eetoolook told CBC News the agreement is needed given the impact of climate change in the Arctic.

Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated vice-president James Eetoolook.

"It's important to move in a timely way to not just protect the resources Inuit rely on, but to ensure Inuit knowledge is used with western science," he said.

"This is the first international agreement that values and incorporates Inuit knowledge to the same extent as western science and guarantees the participation of the Indigenous people of the Arctic." 

Moving forward, Eetoolook said research and monitoring will be extremely important, but that it needs to be supported by improved infrastructure in the region. 

"A key issue is to address the lack of infrastructure in the area to help gather information," he said.