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Nations agree to Arctic marine protections

Nine nations and the E.U. signed a treaty to delay widespread Arctic commercial fishing so scientists can study how it might affect marine life.

Nine nations and the European Union signed a legally binding accord to delay widespread Arctic commercial fishing in an area larger than the Mediterranean Sea for at least 16 years, so scientists can first study how it might affect marine life.

Concerns about climate change's rapid rate of advance in the far north drove three years of negotiations over how to manage and conserve 2.8 million square kilometers of international waters in the central Arctic Ocean.

The accord was signed on October 3 in Greenland. Along with the E.U., signatory nations were Canada, China, Denmark (including Faroe Islands and Greenland), Iceland, Japan, Norway, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Most have coastal claims or large fishing fleets in the region.

Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada's minister for fisheries, oceans and the Coast Guard, called it "a pivotal step towards oceans management and conservation" after signing the agreement.

"This historic effort marks the first time an international agreement of this magnitude has been reached before any commercial fishing has taken place in a high seas area," Wilkinson said in a statement.

"Not only does it give the parties time to develop a greater understanding of this marine ecosystem and the species there," he said, "it will also inform possible conservation and management measures that might be needed in the future."

International interest in the Arctic continues to grow as climate change and the melting sea ice opens up vast areas of this once frozen landscape. The shrinking ice cover also affects the traditional lifestyles of the indigenous peoples in the north, who have a key role to play in the agreement.

But the agreement also marks an effort to "contribute to international oceans governance and to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing which is a global issue affecting fish populations and the health and sustainability of our oceans," Wilkinson said.

After the 16-year ban on fishing, the accord will be automatically extended every five years until the governments jointly adopt science-based fisheries quotas and rules for the central Arctic Ocean, where the rapid melting is creating more areas of open waters where commercial fishing is possible.

An Ocean Conservancy analysis of satellite ice data for the central Arctic Ocean showed the rapid pace of receding sea ice.  Between 2010 and 2017, average minimum thickness of sea ice in the region was 60% less than in the 1980s.

The amount of open water each September between 2010 and 2017 rose to an average 22%, up from 1% in the 1980s. In 2012, it reached a record high of 42%.

“This historic agreement will not only safeguard the central Arctic Ocean from overfishing but also serves as a model for international cooperation in the face of unprecedented environmental change,” said Scott Highleyman, part of the U.S. negotiating delegation and a vice president of conservation policy and programs at the Washington-based Ocean Conservancy.

“The agreement’s ongoing commitment to scientific research in this region will ensure a precautionary approach in decades to come," he said.

Unregulated fishing on the high seas

Experts said the accord, formally known as the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, marked the first time nations have worked together to proactively study and conserve an ocean environment before commercial fishing is allowed.

In 2012, more than 2,000 scientists worldwide called on Arctic nations to take precautionary action in the central Arctic Ocean. Then in 2014, the Inuit Circumpolar Council called for a fisheries moratorium until the scientific impacts could be studied and management rules put in place.

Three years ago, Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States agreed to the Arctic moratorium and to seek a binding accord with other nations that have commercial fishing interests.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement it was the first legally binding and precautionary multilateral agreement for ocean protections before commercial fishing could begin. Until now, no legally binding international agreement has existed to manage potential fishing in Arctic high seas.

In 2009, the United States closed the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone north of Alaska to commercial fishing until fisheries managers learned more about its ecosystem and how best to regulate it. Alaska's fishing industry were concerned that foreign vessels might operate just beyond the zone.

No effective or coordinated system of global governance exists to regulate the high seas — those international waters that lie beyond the 200 nautical mile (370 kilometer) jurisdiction of coastal nations.

That may be about to change. Earlier this month, delegates from 193 nations gathered at United Nations headquarters in New York to work out the first draft of a legally binding international treaty by 2020 that is intended to strengthen marine protections on the high seas.

A draft text of that treaty was to be sent to delegations by January to use as the basis for more negotiations in March. It would cover everything from depleted fish stocks from illegal and under-regulated fishing to deep seabed minerals targeted in a boom of company licensing and deep sea genomes hunted by food and drug makers seeking new products.

That treaty was proposed as an extension of the U.N. Convention on the Law of Sea, or UNCLOS, by adding on requirements for sustainable uses of marine biological diversity beyond national borders.

After it came into force in 1994, UNCLOS created three new international organizations to manage ocean resources: the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea based in Hamburg, Germany; the International Seabed Authority based in Kingston, Jamaica; and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf based at U.N. headquarters.

But the Law of the Sea Convention — which includes more than 165 parties, but not the United States, the only major nation that does not belong — does not cover the high seas.

Another extension to it, the U.N.’s Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement, took effect in 2001 and has 86 parties including the United States. It covers species that migrate among or are found in more than one exclusive economic zone.