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On board the French trawler "Nicolas Jeremy". Picture taken October 22, 2013. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/REUTERS

After 100,000 years of frozen peace, the central Arctic Ocean around the North Pole is becoming a hotbed of activity. Scientists see the ice melting quickly – at least 40 per cent of the central Arctic Ocean is now open water in the summer – and they are awaiting the inevitable next step: the arrival of commercial fishing boats and their massive nets. Now there's hope they may not come.

The five countries surrounding the world's northernmost ocean signed a remarkable accord last Thursday, each pledging not to permit their own ships to fish in the central Arctic Ocean's international waters until a full scientific assessment of fish stocks can be conducted. The off-limits zone is a 2.8 million square kilometre body of water surrounded by Canada, the United States, Russia, the Danish territory of Greenland, and Norway.

The agreement is remarkable not just because it marks a rare example of countries co-operating to protect a sensitive environment before it is threatened, but because several of the signatories are involved in a bitter disagreement over Russian aggression in Ukraine. The U.S., Canada and Russia are barely talking these days, but all agreed to meet in Oslo to sign the accord. It was unusually mature diplomacy, and it deserves applause.

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The signatories were undoubtedly guided by the sobering lessons they learned in the central Bering Sea, in another northern ocean, where pollock stocks were quickly overfished to collapse in the 1980s. Despite late efforts to impose a fishing ban, those stocks have never recovered. Canada learned similarly hard lessons closer to home with the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery. Over 2,000 scientists from 67 countries – the largest number from Canada – signed a letter urging governments to protect the top of the world from a similar fate.

The accord is just the first step. International waters belong to everyone, which means that fishing boats from other states could still fish in the region. The next step for the lead countries is to bring together major fishing powers, such as Japan, China, South Korea and the European Union, in a joint meeting to negotiate a broader accord. Canada should take the lead in persuading the world to act, ensuring fishery protection for a vulnerable region, before it's too late.

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