The end of November marked a historic agreement for fisheries management, conservation and science. Ten countries signed an accord to prevent commercial fishing in the high seas of the Central Arctic Ocean. The agreement designates 1.1 million square miles, beyond the domain of Arctic countries’ exclusive economic zone, as off-limits to commercial fishing fleets.

Warming waters and thawing ice

The international agreement comes at a time when the  sea ice of the Central Arctic is receding rapidly. Increased melting in the summers has created open water in as much as 40 percent of the area covered by the new treaty. The thaw allows unprecedented accessibility for commercial fishing vessels and introduces the feasibility of large-scale commercial fishery operations, with unknown consequences for fish populations and interconnected marine and human communities.

The precautionary principle in action

The agreement commits to conducting scientific research before commercial fishing is allowed, and is a model application of the precautionary principle, which calls for action to avoid or diminish any human-induced harm that is scientifically plausible even if not yet certain. By conducting research first, scientists will be able to gather information to understand the abundance, structure, movement and health of fish stocks, as well as the role they play in the central Arctic ecosystem and beyond.

“For the first time, nations are committing to scientific research in a high seas area before commercial fishing begins,” said Scott Highleyman, vice-president of conservation policy and programs at Ocean Conservancy who also served on the U.S. delegation negotiating the agreement. “This precautionary action recognizes both the pace of change in the Arctic due to climate change as well as the tradition of Arctic cooperation across international boundaries.”

Charting the course for conservation and diplomacy

This agreement delivers “better-safe-than-sorry” benefits for conservation of the high seas and the associated web of life. Beyond that, the area now off-limits to commercial fishing connects to existing no-fishing Arctic areas in Alaska and Canada, creating an even larger marine conservation zone. The 10-nation accord is the most inclusive treaty in the Arctic to date, in terms of the numbers of signatories, and demonstrates the strength of conservation diplomacy in the region. It represents a culmination of years of groundwork by partners including The Pew Charitable Trusts, with other milestones including a 2012 open letter from more than 2.000 scientists calling for precautionary management for the central Arctic and the Inuit Circumpolar Council’s 2014 call for a fisheries moratorium.

Herb Nakimayak, vice president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada, explained “It's the first agreement of its kind that involves Indigenous people…In the past Inuit have always advocated for Indigenous and traditional local knowledge to be a part of any decision-making process. This agreement is … the first of its kind that actually has that."

The treaty governs the next 16 years, after which it will be renewed every five years unless a country objects or until science-based fisheries quotas and rules are implemented. Parties to the agreement have begun work to establish and inform their joint program of scientific research.


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