The European Union and four other countries that have commercial interests in the Arctic, including China and Japan, have joined Canada and the four other nations with territory stretching into the northern ocean in a moratorium that will prevent fishing across the top of the world until science says it can be managed sustainably.
The agreement reached between the 10 governments in Washington on Thursday caps years of negotiations to protect 2.8 million square kilometres of the Arctic that are expected to become available to fishers as climate change causes the sea ice to melt.
The deal will prevent commercial fishing in the region for at least 16 years. It will automatically be renewed in 2033, and then every five years after that, unless one of the countries objects or fishing quotas and rules governing commercial fisheries have been put in place.
"It's heartening to see Arctic and non-Arctic countries come together on conservation measures for the future of the Arctic Ocean," said Herb Nakimayak, vice-president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada, who was a member of the Canadian delegation.
"The agreement explicitly calls out the importance of considering Indigenous peoples' knowledge and the importance of our role in the Arctic," Mr. Nakimayak said. "Joining together like this makes for a stronger agreement and inspires country-states co-ordination and co-operation, which I hope will benefit our Arctic coastal communities."
Five countries – Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway and Russia – agreed in 2015 not to drop their nets in the Arctic Ocean until a full scientific assessment had been conducted of the fish stocks and the ways in which they could be harvested without damaging the environment or threatening fish populations.
But that agreement would have done nothing to stop boats from China, Japan, South Korea and Iceland from entering the region. Thursday's deal ensures those countries will also abide by the moratorium.
It covers what is known as the "Arctic doughnut hole" – the large expanse of unregulated international waters around the North Pole. There is no commercial fishing in the region yet, but it is expected to become feasible in coming years as the ice pack melts. In recent summers, 40 per cent of the area has become open water.
Dominic LeBlanc, the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, said late Thursday afternoon that the moratorium marks "the first time an international agreement of this magnitude has been reached before any commercial fishing takes place on a region of the high seas."
The United States has had a similar fishing ban in place covering the northern coast of Alaska since 2009.
In 2012, a group of 2,000 scientists from 67 countries, including 551 scientists from Canada, called for the moratorium on Arctic fishing until more research could be done and the limits on a sustainable catch could be set. The real concern, even at that time, was that countries such as China, which has been seeking a more active role in the Arctic region, would send its fleets to the Arctic.
Two years later, Canada followed the U.S. lead and imposed its own moratorium in collaboration with the Inuit of the Western Arctic. Since that time, there has been a co-ordinated international effort to persuade all of the potential Arctic players to agree to keep their fishing fleets out of the region.
"This precautionary action recognizes both the pace of change in the Arctic due to climate change as well as the tradition of Arctic co-operation across international boundaries," said Scott Highleyman, vice-president of conservation policy and programs at Ocean Conservancy who was part of the U.S. delegation negotiating the agreement.