This is a story about the frozen ocean at the top of our planet. It’s wild and untouched, and at the moment it’s owned by everyone and no-one. This is the Arctic high seas, the wild west of the high north, and our global commons. But the sea ice is melting and soon the Arctic will be like other oceans for much of the year – open water exposed to exploitation and industry. The resources that for thousands of years have been locked up by ice will soon become accessible, and the vultures are circling for the fish and oil.
It is glaringly obvious that the Arctic high seas is in desperate need of protection. And today for the first time the Arctic coastal states have recognised that this ocean is a special case. In Oslo this morning representatives from Russia, Norway, Canada, Greenland and the USA have all signed up to an agreement about fishing that gives the area a stop-gap, at least while more research is done. In doing this they are confirming the outcome of a meeting last year in Nuuk.
The agreement signed today is far from enough. It’s only a temporary reprieve. It seems that they still intend to send fishing fleets northward in the long term. And they have said nothing about other threats like oil drilling. They had an opportunity to go much further, and they have baulked.
It is a baby step, but it is in the right direction. Importantly, the agreement covers all the international waters around the North Pole – precisely the same area that 7 million people have declared an Arctic sanctuary. The idea of an Arctic sanctuary, permanently off-limits to all fishing, drilling and mining, has been building political interest. Advocates now include public figures like Desmond Tutu and Dr Sylvia Earle as well as the European Parliament and the Government of Finland!
Some people still say that creating an Arctic sanctuary is impossible. They don’t believe that big countries will ever work together to protect something for the whole of humanity. But today we saw a glimpse of something different – a small sign that an alternative future for the Arctic is possible. These countries have it within their power to destroy the Arctic or to protect it. It really could go either way. Nothing is inevitable. There is still a lot of work to do – but never say never.
As the international movement for Arctic protection grows we need to hold the Arctic States to account, demanding that they protect the Arctic high seas from all exploitation, permanently.
But for a moment, close your eyes and know that an Arctic sanctuary is possible, and that it could just be closer than any of us think.
Sophie Allain is an Arctic Campaigner at Greenpeace International.
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