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The Making of a Milestone Arctic Fisheries Agreement

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© Scott Highleyman

Ten Arctic and non-Arctic countries signed a binding agreement this month to prevent the start of commercial fishing in the international waters of the Central Arctic Ocean for at least 16 years while scientists assess the impact of climate change in this region. At the signing ceremony in Ilulissat, Greenland, I was invited to speak to the delegates about the process that led to the accord. The signing was celebrated with Greenlandic singing and dancing and a boat trip through the Ilulissat Ice Fjords World Heritage Site.

Here’s what I said on this historic occasion about the pathway to the final agreement:


“Thank you to the Government of Greenland for hosting all of us today. It is fitting that we are here in beautiful Ilulissat because Greenland played a crucial role in these negotiations and helped to inspire this agreement. I was honored to be part of the U.S. delegation during the negotiations as an NGO participant but my comments today, of course, are my own.

Our hosts asked me to reflect on the process that led to this agreement. As I thought about it, I realized that there are two ways to describe the way we reached a final agreement.

The most straight-forward description is that over the course of two years, starting in December 2015 and ending in December 2017, the ten parties met six times to negotiate a final text. Diplomats in the audience with years of experience in crafting multilateral pacts tell me this is lightening-speed for a binding international agreement like this.

A second way to think about the process is to dip below the surface and recognize a richer tapestry. As the timeline we put together shows, much more than just the six negotiating sessions made essential contributions to the text you will sign today. I can describe the importance of these activities by summarizing three factors that led to the success of this agreement.

First, the cooperative spirit of the parties: The ten parties came together at the first meeting with diverse, and sometimes conflicting, national interests for the issue of high seas commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean. Because the Arctic Ocean is such a dynamic and changing environment, new thinking is needed to respond to changing circumstances.

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© Scott Highleyman
Over the course of the six meetings, the parties showed that they were willing to listen to each other, hold off on rigid responses to other ways of thinking, and show flexibility in considering new ideas and solutions. The chair of the negotiations, Ambassador David Balton, set this tone by reminding us often to respect different views expressed and to listen and learn from each other as we sought a mutually acceptable solution to a novel problem.

Second, the inclusive nature of the process: The negotiations benefitted greatly by including Inuit directly in three of the national delegations and listening to their views. The resulting text includes provisions requiring the consideration of indigenous knowledge along with new scientific findings and the participation of indigenous people in future implementation of the agreement.

The process also benefitted by including non-Arctic voices. Hearing from and understanding the interests from outside the Arctic about this high-seas area that is beyond the fisheries jurisdiction of any nation ensured a strong and fair agreement that will be durable.

And the process was successful in recognizing and taking advantage of the knowledge and skills of civil society. In 2012, over 2,000 scientists from 67 countries published an open letter asking nations to step up to the challenge and craft an agreement very similar to what is before you today. Universities from many countries convened roundtables and workshops to discuss key issues reflected in the agreement such as governance and research, including Tongji University in Shanghai, Hokkaido University in Japan, Queen’s University in Canada, and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in Moscow.

And NGOs—including the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and the Pew Charitable Trusts in the U.S., and the Inuit Circumpolar Council in four Arctic countries—played an important role in helping to convene some of these discussions and adding a depth and breadth of knowledge about the Arctic.

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© Scott Highleyman
  And, perhaps surprising to some in the audience from government, I would highlight the positive role of the media in getting us to today’s signing. Outlets like Russia’s Fish News magazine, the Russian Geographical Society’s Arctic Herald, the New York Times, and Canada’s Globe and Mail, among many others, published in-depth stories and analysis during the negotiations that kept the parties focused on the underlying problem we were trying to solve.

The third and final factor for success of this process is that the agreement it produced is both precautionary and timely. It is very hard for states to feel urgency about preventing problems when so many current issues and problems demand urgent action. The parties are to be greatly commended for dedicating highly skilled diplomats, time, and funds on this issue amidst so many other priorities around the world. Even though it is a precautionary agreement, I think you are signing it just in time. The melting of Arctic sea ice in the Central Arctic Ocean continues to accelerate at alarming rates so that delaying commercial fishing and setting into motion increased scientific research in this region looks like a perfectly timely response in 2018.

These factors of cooperation, inclusion, and precaution combined to create a very Arctic kind of agreement. The Arctic Ocean is a fascinating place to many for supporting a bounty of fascinating animals, fish and birds amidst a sea of ice. But it is much more. The Arctic is a peopled place with over four million human inhabitants. And people living in the Arctic have learned the hard way that they can afford to waste nothing. In the past, the penalty for inflicting damage on key components of the ecosystem has resulted in hardship and even starvation. So, committing to learn about life in the CAO before allowing industrial-scale exploitation is a very conservative, Arctic kind of response to change. The other thing the Arctic has taught people is the need to cooperate with each other, including people with different views and ideas, to survive and thrive. And that is why what you are signing today is a good fisheries agreement and a terrific Arctic agreement.

Thank you, and congratulations.”

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