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A Changing State Department: Why Collaboration is Still Vital in the Arctic

Clouds Rolling In
© Christopher Michel

The ripples of President Trump’s decision to fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will undoubtedly impact U.S. policy initiatives around the globe. But there’s at least one place where continuity should prevail: the Arctic.

The Arctic is a region of international high seas surrounded by the exclusive economic zones of five nations. It’s a complex web of interlinked national jurisdictions—and that means heightened potential for discord.

Fortunately, the Arctic has been—and continues to be—fertile ground for cooperation in the international arena. So, regardless of leadership changes in Washington DC, the U.S. must continue to promote this spirit of international collaboration in the Arctic.

Cooperation and collaboration among Arctic nations is nothing new. For example, a news story highlighted how maritime experts from Russia and Norway recently conducted joint exercises to help prepare for a shipping disaster in the remote Barents Sea. The exercises grew out of a 1995 Russia/Norway agreement, and were just the latest in a series of collaborative drills intended to help increase the odds of success if a maritime disaster strikes.

When it comes to Arctic nations working together for the common good, there’s no shortage of good examples:

  • Arctic Council: In 1996, the countries that border the Arctic (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark/Greenland/Faroe Islands, Canada, Russia and the United States) joined with organizations representing indigenous peoples of the Arctic to found the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum specifically designed to promote cooperation and coordination. In recent years, the Arctic Council has been instrumental in the formation of several binding agreements on search and rescue, oil pollution preparedness and response and enhancing scientific cooperation. The Arctic Council also hosts the recently-formed Arctic Shipping Best Practices Information Forum, which facilitates the flow of information and best practices related to shipping in Arctic waters. The 2011 search and rescue agreement also led to the creation, in 2015, of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, an independent and informal group intended to encourage maritime safety and environmentally responsibility in the Arctic.
  • Fisheries: Cooperation in the Arctic isn’t limited to the Arctic Council. In December 2017, 10 countries agreed to prevent the start of commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean for at least 16 years while scientists study the effects of climate change in this region. The Central Arctic Ocean is part of the “high seas” and would normally be open to unregulated commercial fishing. But in this case, Arctic countries and major fishing nations agreed to take a more precautionary approach that will protect the ecosystem and allow scientists to learn more about its marine life.
  • International Maritime Organization: The Arctic (and Antarctic) also inspired members of the International Maritime Organization to adopt the Polar Code, an agreement intended to address a wide range of issues related to shipping in polar regions. The Polar Code covers technical matters like ship design, operations, training, and search and rescue, and it also covers protection of the marine environment in high latitude seas.

And although relations between the United States and Russia are generally frosty, the two countries have still managed to collaborate in the Arctic. Just recently, Russia and the United States submitted a joint proposal for shipping routes in the Bering Strait region to the International Maritime Organization. Once officially adopted, the routes will foster safer shipping by encouraging vessels to travel along well-charted routes, and will promote environmental protection by reducing the risk of accidents that could cause oil spills or adversely affect the subsistence way of life of Arctic communities.

Whether it’s streamlining search and rescue, preventing the start of commercial fishing, or defining safer shipping routes, the Arctic has been—and continues to be—a place where international collaboration yields major gains.

That’s why Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic program works here in the United States and in multiple international venues, including the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organization, to promote collaboration. While our experts have played important roles in securing recent Arctic conservation victories on the international stage, those victories may not have been possible without the strong foundation of good will that exists among Arctic nations.

While the international community still has much more to do to protect the Arctic, there’s no doubt that working together just makes sense. Let’s hope the new leadership at the U.S. State Department agrees!

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