Canada and Arctic coastal countries are to hold talks with non-Arctic nations Monday about imposing a fishing moratorium in seas at the top of the world until more is known about them.
The talks in Washington, D.C., are the first step in extending a ban already agreed to last July by Canada, the United States, Norway, Denmark and Russia.
"Canada has committed to work co-operatively with Arctic Ocean coastal states on fisheries science research in the Arctic area, and to work to prevent commercial fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean until appropriate fisheries management measures are put in place to conserve stocks and their ecosystem," said a statement from Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
The ban covers waters in the central Arctic Ocean that are beyond the territorial limits of any country. No commercial fishing exists there now, but the possibility exists as climate change opens those seas.
In recent years, 40 per cent of the central Arctic Ocean has been ice-free in the summer.
The talks are to bring China, Korea, Japan, Iceland and the European Union to the table.
"Those non-Arctic countries include the largest modern fishing nations," said Scott Highleyman, a representative of the environmental arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts and a member of the U.S. delegation. "Their fishing fleets have the capacity to roam all over the world, including this part of the Arctic.
"To me, this is one of those little pivot points.
"Are (the non-Arctic states) going to take the go-slow approach hammered out by the Arctic countries? Or are they going to come with an aggressive approach to accelerate commercial fishing in the area?"
Highleyman said early indications have been positive. A recent paper co-written by a prominent Chinese academic suggests the country is eager to be seen as a good neighbour in the Arctic as its interests in the area grow.
"The (central Arctic Ocean) fisheries negotiations may thus provide an opportunity for China to be involved in Arctic affairs in a new and non-threatening way, perhaps reducing concerns among Arctic states about China's intentions," wrote Min Pan of Shanghai's Tong Ji University.
The continuing presence of Russia at the table, despite conflicts with the U.S. and Canada in other parts of the world, points to the Arctic as a place where countries still try to get along, said Highleyman.
Commercial fishing in the High Arctic is a future possibility. But scientists know little about fish stocks in the area or what fish may be migrating there as a result of climate change.
"What we really need is an ecological baseline," Highleyman said.
That the issue is being discussed at all is an index of how important the Paris climate talks are, he added.
"No one was talking about this 10 years ago. It's an indication of how fast climate change is changing the Arctic."
If all goes well, an agreement could be reached by the end of 2016, Highleyman suggested.