Koojesse Inlet, Nunavut, Canada (c) 2012 Anthony Speca

Taking a first bite from the Arctic donut hole

NTI’s statement on virgin international fisheries in the Arctic Ocean raises a question about Inuit resistance to involving non-arctic states in arctic economic governance.

Originally published in Northern Public Affairs, 29 May 2012
Download a PDF of this article

Though few noticed at the time, on April 25 Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) seems to have suggested that aboriginal peoples should have preferential access to commercial fisheries in the international waters of the Arctic “beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones [EEZs] of the Arctic States.”  This would be surprising, since it’s internationally acknowledged that international waters beyond any state’s EEZ are the common property of humanity.  No one, whether aboriginal or non-aboriginal, adjacent or distant, has preferential access to such waters under international law.

Often lost in the hype about the arctic “scramble for resources” is the fact that a large part of the Arctic Ocean can’t be claimed by anyone, including even the arctic states.  According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no state has exclusive rights to the open ocean beyond 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from its shorelines, which is the limit of its EEZ.  Some of the seabed beyond this limit can be claimed, provided it’s a natural extension of the continental shelf.  But the waters beyond it—often called the “high seas”—belong to the international community.

This means that there is a huge “donut hole” of high sea in the central Arctic Ocean, a bit bigger in area than the Mediterranean or Caribbean Sea.  The EEZs of the arctic coastal states surround it, but it lies beyond them.  All members of the international community have an equal right to exploit the waters of the donut hole, which are rapidly beginning to open up in summer as the permanent pack ice disappears.  And those waters might just be full of commercially valuable fish—a potential bounty over which NTI believes Inuit and other arctic aboriginal peoples should have “preferential consideration” as permanent inhabitants in the Arctic living adjacent to those waters.

But NTI isn’t the only group with an interest.  Alarmed by the prospect of an unregulated international fishing derby in the arctic donut hole, over 2,000 scientists from 67 countries have recently signed an open letter calling for a precautionary moratorium on commercial fishing there.  They believe this moratorium should remain in place at least until it’s better understood what kinds of fish swim in the central Arctic Ocean, how many of them there are, and how to manage them sustainably.  Considering that researchers from the University of British Columbia concluded just last year that Canada, the USA and—especially—Russia took 75 times more fish out of arctic waters between 1950 and 2006 than they reported to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a moratorium might seem only prudent.

And the worry isn’t just overfishing by the arctic states.  The Pew Environmental Group, which sponsored the scientists’ open letter through its Oceans North International campaign, points out that the donut hole is significantly closer to Chinese ports than the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, where Chinese vessels already fish.  It’s also within reach of the ports of other major distant-water fishing states, such as Japan, Portugal, South Korea and Spain.  According to the FAO, the world’s fishing states have either fully exploited or overexploited about 80% of global fish stocks already.

It would require multilateral action on the part of the international community, particularly states with fleets capable of reaching the central Arctic Ocean, to close the donut hole.  That isn’t to say it can’t be done—but in the past it’s been like letting the fox guard the henhouse.  In 1993, China, Japan, Poland, Russia, South Korea and the USA jointly applied a moratorium on the pollock fishery in similar donut hole in the Aleutian Basin, but only after they’d completely demolished the once-massive pollock stock through overfishing.  The moratorium remains in force, as the stock still hasn’t recovered.

The EU, one of the world’s biggest markets for arctic fish, has already come out in favour of a moratorium on new arctic fisheries until a robust fisheries-management regime can be set up.  It’s far from clear, however, that others in the international community share this view.  In 2011, a senior researcher from South Korea’s government-run Korea Maritime Institute proclaimed that “Arctic fisheries can become the center of world fisheries in the near future”, and he went on to extol their potential not only to meet Korea’s high demand for fish in the face of declining stocks elsewhere, but also to rescue the Korean fishing industry from its financial troubles.

Little wonder, then, that NTI might want to stake an early claim to the arctic donut hole.  After all, NTI has found it repeatedly necessary to remind the Government of Canada to respect Inuit rights to preferential access to arctic fisheries within Canada’s own EEZ, even though these rights are guaranteed under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.  And with its experience co-managing the allocation of fishing quotas for Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, NTI is aware of what it could lose to international interests.

Before 1977, much of the waters of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait lay beyond Canada’s EEZ, which then legally extended only to 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) from shore.   These waters hosted a commercial stock of roundnose grenadier, which unregulated fishing in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly by Soviet and German fleets, may have helped eliminate.  Today, the roundnose grenadier is considered endangered in Canada, and the Baffin Bay and Davis Strait fisheries are limited to turbot and shrimp.

So does NTI support the call for a precautionary moratorium on fishing in the arctic donut hole?  Nunatsiaq News reported that it categorically does not—but though NTI never corrected the report, it in fact neither opposed nor supported a moratorium explicitly in its April 25 statement.  But either way, how could NTI, or even Canadian Inuit as a whole, expect to have any serious influence on the management of fisheries they’ve never traditionally exploited, and over which Canada has no authority?

Normally, fisheries on the high seas are governed by dedicated international organizations, which conduct scientific surveys of fish stocks and regulate total allowable catches.  An example is the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), which manages international fisheries off Canada’s east coast.  Their members are sovereign states—both adjacent states and states with distant-water fleets.  Japan, South Korea and the EU, for example, are members of NAFO, alongside Canada, Greenland and the USA.  Aboriginal peoples are not represented except indirectly through their states, since aboriginal maritime rights can extend no farther than the limits of their states’ EEZs.

There is currently no international fisheries organization like NAFO covering the arctic donut hole, which is precisely why some fear overfishing there.  There is, however, an international body that considers sustainable development in the Arctic within its remit—and which moreover counts aboriginal peoples as permanent participants.  This body is the Arctic Council, and one of those permanent participants is the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), which represents the interests of all Inuit internationally.

If NTI intends to work through ICC and the Arctic Council to advance an agenda of preferential aboriginal access to international commercial fisheries in the Arctic, it should bear a couple of things in mind.

First, ICC and the other arctic aboriginal organizations would need to clarify a common position on arctic commercial fishing.  So far, no Inuit organization apart from NTI has publicly commented on fishing in the donut hole, but the Alaska branch of ICC supported a 2009 moratorium on expansion of commercial fishing in the American EEZ north of the Bering Strait, and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation supported a 2011 moratorium on expansion of commercial fishing in the Canadian EEZ in the Beaufort Sea.  In its Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic, ICC made a general claim for “the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination and representation in intergovernmental matters”, but it’s unclear what this would mean for international fisheries management specifically.

Second, the Arctic Council in its current form almost certainly cannot take the lead on managing international fisheries in the donut hole—let alone provide aboriginal peoples preferential access to them on some as yet unrecognized legal or human-rights grounds.  Its membership is too narrow, excluding such important distant-water fishing states as China, Japan, South Korea, Spain and the EU—in some cases even merely as observers.  If the Arctic Council actually wished to take on the role of an international fisheries organization, or to create a new one from scratch, it doubtlessly would have to include all the relevant distant-water fishing states as members.

This would create something of a dilemma for the Inuit.  So far, they’ve been very wary of allowing non-arctic states a voice in arctic affairs.  They suspect that non-arctic states don’t really understand the Arctic and its peoples, and that their own voice would be drowned out.  To take but one example, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami opposes the EU’s bid for observer status on the Arctic Council because the EU’s seal-trade ban threatens Inuit economic rights over their traditional marine resources.  The complaint is legitimate and the suspicions are justifiable.  But all this hardly bodes well for winning special Inuit access to the international community’s own marine resources—or perhaps more importantly for obtaining a seat at the table managing international commercial fisheries in the Arctic.

NTI and the Inuit have good reason to worry that powerful fishing states with large distant-water fleets might irreparably damage commercial fisheries in the Arctic, and that the international community might fail to prevent it.  But it’s hard to see what the Inuit could do to protect their interests in those fisheries without engaging non-arctic states on the interests they have in them as well.