At a meeting of the Arctic Council on July 16th in Oslo, Norway, the organization agreed on increased protection for the vulnerable seas surrounding the North Pole, which aims primarily to ensuring that fish populations and fishing techniques are sustainable.
The Arctic Council, an organization set up to undertake international decisions regarding the North Pole and its surrounding waters, includes all the nations that have territories bordering on the polar region, including Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden the United States and Denmark (as Greenland is under Danish rule). A number of nations, including China, have observatory status. Also a part of the council are organizations representing the indigenous people living in the area.
Until now the situation in the Arctic Ocean has been described by some observers as “Wild West conditions,” as no single nation had the legislative power to introduce protection of the area. And previous attempts to agree on regulation and protection for the marine region, roughly the size of the Mediterranean, have so far failed. But the recent agreement is an important first step in ensuring full protection for the region.
As fishing fleets from around the world venture further and further to sea, as well as further north in search of fish populations affected by climate change, even areas as remote as the Arctic Ocean may come under threat from overfishing. And as known oil and gas fields are running out of resources, energy companies are turning their attention to far-away regions, including the Arctic Ocean.
The initial agreement focuses primarily on the economic uses of the Arctic Ocean, including setting quotas on fishing, enacting requirements that the industry only targets sustainable fish populations, and new regulation of trade routes to minimize the risk of crashes, which lead to fuel and cargo spills. The council also laid out plans for more work to be done in protecting the area over the coming two years.
While these steps are important, and do offer increased protection for this unique marine environment, many environmental organizations had hoped for more. Dr. Alexander Sheshtakov, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s global Arctic program, describes the agreement as “the right, but slow, track.”
“We will continue to work with the Council on its conservation and sustainability initiatives, and will watch to ensure that it follows up on commitments,” he said. “They don’t always go as far as we’d like, or as fast as we think is necessary, but we believe that concerted action by the Arctic states, indigenous peoples and observers is the only way to address the challenges facing Arctic wildlife and peoples, and the Council provides a framework for that.”
In particular, the WWF expressed disappointment that more steps weren’t taken to protect the area from the threat from global warming and oil spills. “They have not completely ignored these issues, but have put them on the back burner for two years,” says Sheshtakov.
The next step is to get the observer nations, including China, to ratify the agreement.