Cooperation in the Arctic Ocean?
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In 2007 a Russian-led polar expedition, descending through the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean in a Mir submarine, planted a titanium Russian tricolor on the sea bed 4km (2.5 miles) beneath the North Pole. “The Arctic has always been Russian,” declared Artur Chilingarov, one of the polar explorers. In the event, fears that this action would set off a scramble for Arctic territory and riches may prove real.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the area has an eighth of the world’s untapped oil and perhaps a quarter of its gas.

The prize for countries, which are setting eye on the Arctic is the mineral wealth of the Arctic, which global warming may make more accessible. Temperatures in the region are rising at twice the rate of the rest of the Earth. According to the United States Geological Survey, the area has an eighth of the world’s untapped oil and perhaps a quarter of its gas.

A scramble for the Arctic

The increased accessibility to now ice-free areas has led to speculations about a new “scramble” for potential unclaimed Arctic resources. Although such reports should generally be viewed as exaggerated alarmist warnings, the “high seas” of the Arctic Ocean defined as areas beyond 200 nautical miles from Arctic costal states northernmost shores do indeed comprise living resources beyond any state’s national jurisdiction.

Read more: Gigantic Oil Reserves in the Arctic: a New Battleground for Global powers

The five Arctic Costal states (USA, Russia, Norway, Canada and Denmark – including Greenland and the Faroe Islands) are actively participating in the negotiations, together with five additional key stakeholders (Iceland, China, South Korea, Japan and the EU) and form the so called 5+5 group.

According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, living resources of high seas belong to no one and could hence be exploited by anyone. The potential for conflicts between states regarding resource harvesting in the Arctic is therefore real. Interstate negotiations on how to regulate living resources in the “high seas” of the Arctic Ocean have been ongoing since 2010. The five Arctic Costal states (USA, Russia, Norway, Canada and Denmark – including Greenland and the Faroe Islands) are actively participating in the negotiations, together with five additional key stakeholders (Iceland, China, South Korea, Japan and the EU) and form the so called 5+5 group.

While indigenous peoples have been represented in the delegations from Denmark (Greenland), Canada and the USA, their role have in practice been rather limited as the central part of the Arctic Ocean are very far away from the areas inhabited by these people and no historic rights exists.

The current format of state negotiations is evolving as a two-tier process, where scientists are actively involved. Because the central Arctic Ocean is, so far, permanently covered by ice and hardly accessible, knowledge of the extent and volume of marine organisms populating this area has been identified as an important data gap.

A key task in the negotiation process has therefore been to establish a joint scientific project, with the long-term goal of assessing the potential for future commercial fisheries.

Particularly, there is a need to assess the presence and abundance of both Arctic species adapted to this environment and boreal species migrating northwards. A key task in the negotiation process has therefore been to establish a joint scientific project, with the long-term goal of assessing the potential for future commercial fisheries. Discussions between scientists from the 5+5 stakeholder group have complemented meetings at the diplomatic level, demonstrating a practical example where science plays a major role in a political negotiation process.

Read more: Belt and Road forum: Return of the Old World?

The main fish species known to colonize the high Arctic Ocean is the polar cod Boreogadus saida. Polar cod is a small (<40 cm) mainly benthic fish with low commercial interest and high ecological importance for the ecosystem. Adult specimens seem to be restricted to the shelf region, but younger individuals are frequently encountered in connection with sea ice in the central Arctic Ocean.

Through ecological cascading effects, the ecological and economical role of polar cod may also be shifted, with hitherto unknown consequences and influence on future fisheries in the Arctic Ocean.

Despite its relative small size, its ecological importance is great as they can channel up to 75% of the energy between zooplankton and marine birds or mammals. So far, commercial fisheries of polar cod are limited and restricted to Russian waters. Being restricted to shelf regions, it is unlikely that it will extend its distribution into the central Arctic Ocean. As such, its direct economic importance is likely to be low. However, as commercially harvested boreal species, such as Atlantic cod and halibut, expand northwards, the region could possibly become of interest for fishermen from Arctic costal states as well as from other nations with expertise in high-sea fisheries, in particular from Eastern Asia. Through ecological cascading effects, the ecological and economical role of polar cod may also be shifted, with hitherto unknown consequences and influence on future fisheries in the Arctic Ocean.

Read more: ‘Putin’s French visit cancellation helped France save face’

Negotiations to regulate the harvesting of marine living resources in the Arctic Ocean comprise of several conflicting topics. As these negotiations involve resources with potentially significant commercial interest not owned by anyone and a geopolitically important and highly symbolic region, it appears impossible to take for granted that the process will go smoothly. However, thanks to scientific cooperation and responsible state behavior, the negotiations are taking into account ecological vulnerabilities of the region and the need for maintaining peace and stability. While not concluded yet, signals from the negotiators indicate that a common declaration or agreement can be expected soon, perhaps even in 2017.

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