Jul 18, 2015 by

With melting sea ice opening the Arctic Ocean to a potentially huge increase in commercial fishing, the five nations that border the region signed a declaration Thursday that will prohibit trawling in international waters.

The United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark, and Norway agreed that while the frigid Arctic isn’t a productive commercial fishery, climate change means it could be as the ice melts and fish migrate north to warming waters

So, Why Should You Care? Instead of exploiting the potential fishery in a Wild West–style aquatic rush, the five nations are planning to impose a moratorium until more scientific research can give a clearer picture on the sustainability of the region. Then regulations will be issued to regulate commercial fishing.

The deal “will prevent a problem from arising ahead of time,” David Balton, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries, told Reuters. “Very little is known about this area of the ocean.”

The moratorium only applies to the five signatories and does not prevent other nations from fishing in Arctic international waters. Conservationists think the fish ban should be permanent, as the delicate Arctic environment continues to cope with climate change. In 2012, about 40 percent of the central Arctic—an area larger than Alaska and Texas combined—was ice-free, a record low for sea-ice coverage. Last year, ocean surface temperatures reached their highest levels in 135 years.

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“The agreement signed is far from enough,” Greenpeace Arctic campaigner Sophie Allain said in a blog post. “It’s only a temporary reprieve. It seems that they still intend to send fishing fleets northward in the long term.”

Still, marine researchers will have time to determine what the world’s warming ocean temperatures mean for fish migration patterns, and whether or not the central Arctic could become a sustainable fishery for commercially viable species such as the Arctic cod in Norway and Russia and the Pacific cod in Alaska. The Pacific cod catch in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska currently totals $185 million annually, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. If those fish head north, the anglers catching them for a living most likely will too.

The agreement is in addition to regulations the countries already have in their “exclusive economic zones,” which extend 200 miles from the shoreline out to sea. The U.S. has a ban in place in its EEZ along Alaska’s northern border, as does Norway for trawl fishing in its territorial waters.

“The next step for this agreement is for states such as China, Spain, Japan, the U.K., and Korea to sign on also,” Alexander Shestakov of World Wildlife Fund’s global Arctic program said in a statement. “These Arctic Council observer states say they support the integrity of the Arctic environment—this is a good opportunity for them to prove it.”

In 2009, the Obama administration banned commercial fishing north of the Bering Strait, shutting down about 150,000 square miles of potential fishing.

But last year, Obama proposed two new leases for oil exploration above the Bering Strait, including a sign-off on Shell’s plan to explore six potential oil well sites in the Chukchi Sea this summer.

“The vultures are circling for the fish and oil,” Allain said. “And [the Arctic Council nations] have said nothing about threats like oil drilling. They had an opportunity to go much further, and they have balked.”

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