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The Russian trawler Elektron sails off Norway's Arctic coast on October 18, 2005. The trawler accused of illegal fishing has escaped from Norwegian patrol boats with two Norwegian fisheries inspectors still aboard after a five-day chase across Arctic seas.


Two hundred miles above Canada's most northern shore lies a body of international water that has been covered in ice for more than 800,000 years - a sea the size of the Mediterranean kept beyond reach of commercial fishing interests by a vast frozen dome of white.

But the ice shield is melting and no agreements are in place to prevent boats from China, Japan and other fishing nations from entering the High Arctic to reap an undersea bounty that could become accessible in just a few years.

Environmentalists say it's a looming problem, with more questions than answers, that needs urgent attention from countries like Canada that have strong interests in Arctic preservation.

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There is no way to know whether the area could support a commercial fishing industry, said Scott Highleyman, the Arctic director for the Pew Environment Group, a U.S.-based environmental research agency.

"We have almost no science on what fish stocks are there," Mr. Highleyman said. "And even the act of exploratory fishing, which is the first thing that would happen - a country like China would go up and do exploratory fishing in these waters - could easily cause a lot of ecosystem problems."

The situation is also worrying the Americans.

Alaskan Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich delivered a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week asking her to increase her administration's efforts "to secure an international agreement which would prohibit fisheries in the high seas portion of the Central Arctic Ocean until a multilateral regime exists for managing such fisheries properly."

The U.S. Congress passed a resolution in 2008 calling for negotiations leading to an agreement with other nations on the management of fish stocks in the Arctic Ocean, but no deal has been signed.

The region in question lies beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zones that extend from the shorelines of the five countries - Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway - that have Arctic coastlines. Under international law, it is open to fishing boats from anywhere in the world. But the ice has so far kept them away.

Next week, however, at a major international marine conservation conference in Victoria, the Pew Environmental Group will present a series of maps to show that much of the so-called "doughnut hole" of international waters at the centre of the Arctic Ocean has become navigable.

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"We know the Arctic has been melting and we've been losing a lot of permanent ice," Mr. Highleyman said. "But no one had mapped it against the international line to start thinking about what are the implications for fishing."

Even experts in Arctic science were surprised by the findings, he said.

It turns out that in 2007 - a year of extreme melting - 40 per cent of the international waters were open in the summer. There has been less melting in subsequent years. But, since 1978, more and more of the international water has become open.

And the possibilities for commercial fishing are clear.

The international waters at the centre of the Arctic Ocean are actually several thousand kilometres closer to China's main fishing ports than the region of the Antarctic where Chinese commercial fishing ships now spend most of their time.

"Canada, Russia and the U.S. have the most to gain here by reaching an agreement on closing these waters to fishing until the science can catch up to things and until there is management in place," Mr. Highleyman said.

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Gail Shea, the federal Fisheries Minister, said in an e-mail: "Our government is proud to defend Canadian interests in matters affecting our waters and are working with the other Arctic Ocean coastal states to determine, on the basis of sound science, the next steps regarding fisheries in the North."

Mr. Highleyman said his group is not saying a moratorium should be in place forever - just long enough for the scientific research to take place.

"But once fishing starts in international waters," he said, "it's really hard to get it out of it."



Three decades ago, commercial fishing fleets from South Korea, China, Poland and Japan began fishing for pollock in a circle of international water in the middle of the Bering Sea, a so-called "doughnut hole" that lies outside the marine boundaries of individual countries.

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There was no regulation over the enterprise and, in relatively short order, the waters were overfished and the pollock stocks were destroyed.

The United States and Russia became alarmed and worked together to shut down the fishing.

That led to the Convention on the Conservation and Management of the Pollock Resources in the Central Bering Sea, which was signed in 1994 by all of the countries with fishing interest in the region.

The agreement, which covers nearly 125,000 square kilometres of ocean, closed the waters to pollock fishing until a set of conservation conditions were met. It also established scientific and enforcement mechanisms.

Unfortunately, the Pew Environment Group says, by the time the agreement came into effect the damage was done and pollock fishing remains forbidden to this day.


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Canada has agreed that an international effort is needed to reduce the risk of oil drilling in the Arctic.

A council made up of the eight countries that ring the North Pole has decided to develop a framework to deal with oil pollution and emergency preparedness.

The Arctic Council also agreed at a meeting in Greenland to look at black carbon, or soot, and its role in climate change in the North, and it signed a treaty on Arctic search and rescue.

The organization signalled its growing importance by announcing it will become a permanent, year-round diplomatic body.

It also set out rules by which non-Arctic countries would be able to claim observer status at the council - something Canada had previously opposed.

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