Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has written and researched extensively on Arctic policy and defence issues.
The Canadian decision to place a moratorium on commercial fishing in its Arctic waters is both a bold and a necessary step. We do not understand the implications of retreating ice and warming waters on the movement of fish stock into Canadian arctic waters. Thus, this is exactly the type of situation in which to apply the precautionary principle – when in doubt take no action that could hurt the environment. Furthermore, it appears that the relevant northern aboriginal peoples were fully involved in developing this policy to ensure that their long-term interests were respected and protected.
But this decision also illustrates two contradictory policy issues that Canada still needs to resolve. The first concerns the long standing boundary dispute that Canada has with the United States regarding the Beaufort Sea. The second issue pertains to the long-term protection of fish stock not only in Canadian Arctic waters but in all Arctic waters. The contradiction is that the boundary issue sets Canada against the United States. But in order to respond to the second issue, Canada and the United States will need to closely co-operate in the face of growing international pressures.
As most Canadians are aware, Canada and United States have two sovereignty disputes in the Arctic. Our differences regarding the Northwest Passage are better known, but we have also had an ongoing dispute with the Americans as to how to divide the Beaufort Sea. The specifics of the dispute regard the interpretation of the terms of the treaty between the United Kingdom and Russia signed in 1825. This difference has created a disputed zone roughly the shape of a triangle that covers approximately 21,000 square kilometers. What has made this dispute difficult to resolve is that it is believed that the region contains substantial oil and gas deposits. Further complicating the issue is the fact that the 1984 Western Inuvialuit Land Claim settlement region is based on the Canadian position. If Canada was to compromise with the United States on a new border, it would be faced with the politically sensitive issue of redrawing the western most coordinates of that land claims settlement. Canada and United States have preferred to ignore the issue rather than try to resolve it.
However the success of Russia and Norway in resolving a similar dispute in the Barents Sea in 2010 renewed pressures on Canada and the United States to reach a similar agreement. However, prior to this event in 2009, the Americans unilaterally placed a moratorium on commercial fishing in its Arctic waters, including the disputed zone. In effect, they were invoking their laws in territory that Canada claims. The policy was good, the impact on Canadian sovereignty was not. The fact that Canada has now come to implement a similar policy demonstrates that on the issue area the two countries' share the same view of protecting fish stock in the region. Yet there was no effort to try to coordinate these policy efforts to better manage the sovereignty dispute.
The emotional response that both Americans and Canadians can have when they believe their sovereignty is threatened often overpowers the greater need for North American co-operation. It is precisely on the coming Arctic fishery crisis that both countries need to co-operate. Beyond each country's 200 exclusive economic zone, international law stipulates that the Arctic waters will be open to international fishing once the ice is gone. As fish stocks collapsed world-wide, it can only be expected that the international fishing interests will look to the north as the ice retreats. While it is not known if the remaining commercially important fish stocks will move northward, if they do, the fishing fleets will follow. Canada and the United States should expect little co-operation from the other Arctic nations in this regards. Russia vetoed the creation of marine protected zones in Antarctica waters that attempted to slow down fishing in those waters. We know that the one issue in which our allies in NATO have considered using force against each other is in regards to fishery issues (eg U.K. vs Iceland; Canada vs. Spain). People will go to extreme ends to get the fish.
Ultimately, Canada and the United States must develop a common front to ensure the proper protection of fish stock in the Arctic waters. We can expect serious opposition from the rest of the world. This means we must find ways of resolving or removing the Beaufort boundary dispute as an issue to ensure that we are not fighting amongst ourselves when the other fishers begin to arrive. The placement of a fishing moratorium by both countries demonstrate that both nations understand the complexity of the issue, and are willing to place scientific understanding ahead of profit. But the rest of the world will not be so understanding. Now is the time to get rid of the irritants so that we can face the more dangerous challenges.