June 06, 2012

In the Arctic, Fisheries Conservation Could Foster Broader Cooperation

The United States is pushing for an Arctic agenda that promotes resource cooperation among Arctic and non-Arctic countries as part of a broader effort to foster diplomatic engagement in the High North. During a recent visit to Tromso, Norway in the Arctic Circle, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized that the United States is “committed to responsible management of those [Arctic] resources,” including oil, natural gas and other mineral resources. But while much attention is being focused on these lucrative mineral resources, there are significant opportunities for the United States and the other Arctic countries to enhance broader international cooperation, beginning with fisheries conservation.

The Arctic is emerging as one of the most important maritime domains in the world. Environmental change is giving rise to new sea lanes that will cut the transit time between the Pacific and Atlantic, and opening up new areas for commercial development, including for oil, natural gas and minerals extraction, as well as fishing. There is no doubt that the opening of the Arctic is leading today to increased military, commercial and scientific activities. As these activities increase, it will become ever more important for Arctic countries and non-Arctic countries to cooperate around a range of emerging trends, including offshore energy development that could generate environmental challenges, commercial activity that could contribute to greater demand for search and rescue and other law enforcement capabilities, and increased military presence from Arctic (and potentially non-Arctic) countries that could foment uncertainty and lead to misperceptions about other countries’ intentions in the region.

As U.S. policymakers look for opportunities to enhance cooperation in the Arctic Circle, it may be useful to begin with fisheries conservation. This rather low-politics area of engagement could get partners comfortably engaged in a discussion on Arctic issues that could then snowball into a broader conversation about cooperation around other security and foreign policy interests in the region.    

Here are a couple of ways that cooperation around protecting fisheries may serve broader foreign policy purposes in the Arctic Circle:

  • Creating processes for oil spill response. As Shell prepares to conduct exploratory drilling for oil and natural gas in the Chukchi Sea this summer, there is increasing need for countries in the region to prepare for and develop processes for managing oil spills that originate in one country’s territorial sea or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but may affect the marine habitats and coastal communities of another country. Promoting fisheries conservation efforts that includes a dialogue among Arctic country officials on how to respond to oil spills to protect marine fisheries could serve as a model for other conversations regarding spill response, including sharing skimmers, providing boom and other tools necessary to dampen the impact of an offshore oil spill. As the 2010 Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico proved, these accidents can destroy marine resources and have knock-on effects for local and regional economies for years. Developing mechanisms to blunt these effects through international coordination should be a priority in the Arctic.
  • Building confidence among Arctic maritime forces. Arctic maritime forces are increasing their activity in the High North. The U.S. Coast Guard will lead U.S. efforts in U.S. territorial waters and the EEZ to protect marine fisheries and other resources from illegal extraction. Other Arctic countries, including Canada, Norway, Denmark and Russia, are increasing their maritime presence in the region to protect their sovereign resources from unlawful exploitation as well. The buildup of law enforcement and related military capabilities in the Arctic could provoke uneasiness and misperceptions about other countries’ intentions in the region.

    Joint training and cooperation around fisheries conservation and maritime preservation could serve as a confidence building mechanism for Arctic countries and their maritime forces. The unique – and often harsh – conditions in the Arctic Circle will require new capabilities, operational concepts and techniques. Countries in the region could consider sharing lessons learned from adapting traditional law enforcement activities to the Arctic environment and even hold joint exercises, helping each other strengthen their own law enforcement capabilities and protect Arctic marine resources. These joint exercises could begin with fisheries conservation and then be broadened to promote general law enforcement interdiction and other regional goals, including search and rescue response.

    Moreover, if an international agreement is forged to ban fishing on the Arctic high seas for any length of time, the responsibility to enforce the regime will fall on the Arctic countries and their coast guards. Fostering interoperability in anticipation of this kind of international agreement would serve every Arctic country’s interest.  

These types of fisheries conservation efforts could help get the ball rolling for more robust diplomatic engagement among countries in the region. At the very least, getting leaders from Arctic and non-Arctic countries together to discuss avenues for cooperation is a step in the right direction. And it is never too soon to start. The Arctic may be a few years away from being ice-free for months at a time. But these resource and other challenges are already beginning to manifest in the region. As the U.S. Coast Guard likes to say, “The Arctic is now.” Let’s get to it.

Photo: Tromso, Norway. Courtesy of flickr user postdemocracy.