Working Together at the Frontiers: The Central Arctic Ocean Agreement

Wygene Chong PHOTO

Image: AWeith, Polar Bear and Her Cub, Svalbard, 30 July 2015

By Wygene Chong

The Arctic is not only the Arctic Ocean, but also the northern tips of three continents: Europe, Asia and America. It is the place where the Euroasian, North American and Asian Pacific regions meet, where the frontiers come close to one another and the interests of states belonging to mutually opposed military blocs and nonaligned ones cross.[1]

Mikhail Gorbachev

Frontiers need not be zones of tension. They can instead be breeding grounds for creativity. At the end of November 2017, negotiations concluded on a draft Central Arctic Ocean Agreement. The Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, to give it its full title, made headlines in a number of media outlets and is sure to be the subject of intense discussion in the coming years.[2] It stands to become one of the most important polar treaties of our time. I will try to explain why.

Let us start with what it does. As the text of the treaty has not been made public, we must rely on the Chairman’s Statement from the meeting:

The Agreement will prevent unregulated commercial fishing in the high seas portion of the central Arctic Ocean, an area that is roughly 2.8 million square kilometers in size, roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea. Commercial fishing has never been known to occur in this area, nor is it likely to occur in the near future. However, given the changing conditions of the Arctic Ocean, the governments in question developed this Agreement in accordance with the precautionary approach to fisheries management.[3]

So it is essentially a treaty that stops unregulated commercial fishing. That means it may not stop ‘uncommercial fishing’, such as for subsistence. It also means that ‘regulated’ commercial fishing could occur provided it complies with the yet-to-be-released fine print. It is not, at first glance, the sort of broad environmental treaty that some may have wished for, which blocks off all areas outside national jurisdiction in the Arctic from all human activity. This has not even happened in Antarctica, where the political stakes are arguably lower.

However, we should not underestimate this Agreement. It adopts the precautionary approach, meaning it will err on the side of caution when scientific understanding is uncertain. In short, it appears to ‘freeze’ the situation until we know more. Another well-known polar law freezing mechanism is article IV of the Antarctic Treaty, which continues to transfix Antarctica in an interestingly positive state of limbo.[4]

The Chairman’s Statement has more to say:

The Agreement will establish and operate a Joint Program of Scientific Research and Monitoring with the aim of improving the understanding of the ecosystem(s) of this area and, in particular, of determining whether fish stocks might exist in this area that could be harvested on a sustainable basis. The Agreement envisions the possibility that one or more additional regional fisheries management organizations or arrangements may be established for this area in the future.[5]

This places science at the top of the agenda. While research might be focussed on fish stocks, it is likely to branch into other areas. The Agreement will sit well with the recent Arctic Scientific Agreement,[6] a 2017 treaty concluded through the Arctic Council that will make it easier to share information, knowledge and facilities for science.

The Arctic Council is the subject of my last point. It is the main intergovernmental forum of the Arctic, comprising eight member states which all have territory above the Arctic Circle. This Agreement has much broader membership, encompassing delegations from Canada, China, the Faroe Islands and Greenland (represented by Denmark), the European Union, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Russia and the United States. By my count, that is 38 countries.[7] Not quite up to the Antarctic Treaty’s 53 signatories, but nonetheless a significant number. Previous Arctic treaties have been solely among the eight Arctic Council members. What this means for Arctic politics will need to be carefully considered. On one hand, the more people at the table, the more difficult negotiations become. On the other hand, more signatories generally means greater legal and political impact.

The Central Arctic Ocean Agreement is part of a turning point in Arctic history, one that began with the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996. Polar cooperation in the face of adversity is a brilliant model for international law and relations. ‘Mikhail Gorbachev’s words, at least for the polar regions, will probably ring less true in the years to come.’[8]


Wygene Chong is a research assistant at the University of Western Australia, specialising in polar law. He looks forward to many more travels in the Arctic.


[1] Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘Presentation of the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star to the City of Murmansk’ (Speech delivered on 1 October 1987) quoted in Wygene Chong, ‘Fragile Barriers: International Humanitarian Law in the Polar Regions’ (2017) 42(2) University of Western Australia Law Review 110, 111.

[2] ‘Major Fishing Nations Agree Arctic Moratorium’, British Broadcasting Corporation (online), 2 December 2017 <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-42205184&gt;; Levon Sevunts, ‘Arctic Nations and Fishing Powers Sign ‘Historic’ Agreement on Fishery’, The Independent Barents Observer (online), 1 December 2017 <https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/ecology/2017/12/arctic-nations-and-fishing-powers-sign-historic-agreement-fishery&gt;; Timothy Gardner, ‘Global Powers Strike Deal to Research Before Fishing Arctic Seas’, Reuters (online), 1 December 2017 <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-arctic-fishing/global-powers-strike-deal-to-research-before-fishing-arctic-seas-idUSKBN1DV3KH&gt;; ‘Ny Avtale Mot Uregulert Fiske’, Norsk Rikskringkasting (online), 1 December 2017 <https://www.nrk.no/nyheter/ny-avtale-mot-uregulert-fiske-1.13803947&gt;.

[3] ‘Meeting on High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean: Chairman’s Statement’ (Meeting Statement, Washington DC, 30 November 2017) <https://www.state.gov/e/oes/ocns/opa/rls/276136.htm&gt;.

[4] For more, see Wygene Chong, ‘Thawing the Ice: A Contemporary Solution to Antarctic Sovereignty’ (2017) 53(4) Polar Record 436.

[5] ‘Meeting on High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean: Chairman’s Statement’ (Meeting Statement, Washington DC, 30 November 2017) <https://www.state.gov/e/oes/ocns/opa/rls/276136.htm&gt;.

[6] Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, signed on 11 May 2017, Norges traktater nr 17 Multilateral (not yet in force).

[7] Counting the Faroe Islands and Greenland separately.

[8] Wygene Chong, ‘Fragile Barriers: International Humanitarian Law in the Polar Regions’ (2017) 42(2) University of Western Australia Law Review 110, 118.

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