Several Arctic and non-Arctic states signed an unprecedented agreement to regulate Arctic fisheries in November 2017. To prevent further depletion of resources, the agreement prohibits commercial fishing in newly ice-free Arctic waters for 16 years. This agreement will not only protect marine ecosystems that were previously inaccessible, but also allows for undisrupted scientific research to inform sustainable fishing practices in the future.
The agreement is a remarkable feat of international cooperation. Shared interests of Arctic conservation between signatories, including the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, and South Korea, took precedence over divisive geopolitical tensions.
Notably, this environmental protectionist agreement was also established despite President Donald Trump’s disregard of the threat posed by global warming.
As the Arctic sea ice melts, economic opportunities will continue to emerge. Faster transportation routes will become available through the Northwest and Northeast Passages. Oil stocks and mineral resources trapped under sea ice will become increasingly economically viable.
Sovereignty claims over Arctic jurisdictions remain highly contested. As climate change opens the high north to new economic development, Arctic and non-Arctic states alike will use direct and indirect means to claim sovereignty over the region’s resources.
In an effort to exert its sovereignty, Canada has invested $200 million on a new highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, two isolated communities in the Northwest Territories. But this highway has not stopped other states from encroaching on Canadian Arctic waters. China recently gained access to the Northwest Passage from Canada by claiming a scientific mission; in fact, the trip was intended to test the economic feasibility of new trade routes for Chinese cargo ships.
The Arctic is undoubtedly a militarily and economically attractive region. However, many indigenous communities, such as the Inuit and Sami, have lived in remote communities in the Arctic for generations. While the agreement on high-latitude fishing protects Arctic ecosystems from economic expansion, it also needs to consider partnerships with indigenous groups for sustainable development.
Geographic sovereignty has traditionally been established by states. However, state borders were drawn by disregarding indigenous claims on the land.
If activities in the Arctic are to continue and potentially expand, states should make a collaborative effort to include the needs of indigenous groups, alongside their geopolitical, economic, and ecological interests in the North. If this were to be effectively achieved, the Arctic could become an exemplary region for sustainable and equitable growth.