Arctic & Antarctica
Faroese fishing boats in Fuglafjørður harbour. Photo: Erik Christensen

Swimming Away! Arctic Fisheries and International Cooperation

In 2008, the European Union (EU) stated that ‘the overall effect is that climate change will fuel existing conflicts over depleting resources, especially where access to those resources is politicised.’

In 2009, Iceland and the Faroe Islands unilaterally decided to increase their annual quotas on mackerel by 6500% and 340%. Warmer waters had caused the mackerel stock to change its patterns and venture northwards, leading to an advantageous situation for the two island-states.

Fisheries are especially prone to small-scale conflicts erupting, as both resources and maritime boundaries are hard to control and monitor. Fish constitutes a mobile and transnational resource of great value. This is particularly the case with migrating fish stocks, often traversing across invisible maritime borders. Fish itself – at least straddling fish stocks – constitutes a ‘global common’, defined as an ‘environmental object’ that cannot be appropriated to any individual group. When states exploit stocks independently of each other to maximise their own immediate short-term benefits, a so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ takes place and the stocks become subject to depletion. Therefore, dispute and conflict between states over fisheries have been commonplace throughout history.

The Cod Wars (1950s-60s) and the Turbot War (1990s) provide recent historical examples of conflict erupting over straddling fish stocks. Both took place in waters connecting to the Arctic Ocean. The world’s oceans are faced with a new challenge, different from these historical cases. At large, humanity is experiencing a widespread reduction in the total biomass of marine resources, closely linked to human exploitative activities. At the same time, stocks are changing their migratory patterns because of changes in the geophysical marine environment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Arctic, or sub-Arctic waters.

The various Arctic sub-regions are home to some of the most profitable fish stocks in the world. Failure to reach agreements on marine resource management holds relevance for the whole region, with the Barents and Bering Seas historically prone to such disputes. Some have gone so far as to argue that the failure to agree on fisheries quotas was the primary reason for Iceland’s decision to end its EU-membership bid on March 12, 2015. Others foresee an increase in the failure of cooperation more generally, as the impact of climate change on fish stocks becomes increasingly apparent. The five Arctic coastal states (Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Canada, the United States and Russia) have together with other countries agreed on a moratorium on fisheries in the central Arctic Ocean in advance of a conflict.

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