David A. Balton
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
Washington, DC
March 4, 2009

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Deputy Assistant Secretary Balton: The Arctic is changing in many ways, primarily because the climate is warming. The Arctic region is warming faster than other areas of the planet, and this has consequences for the fish in the area and for possible future fisheries in the Arctic. So as the ice recedes and the waters of the Arctic Ocean warm, we anticipate that stocks will be moving in more northerly areas, and we think it’s important to start now with other responsible governments to plan for managing future fisheries in the Arctic that don’t exist today.

Q: So how would you proceed? Close the area to commercial fishing? Isn’t that too radical a measure?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Balton: The Arctic is not a single region for fisheries. There is an area of the Arctic close to the North Atlantic Ocean and there already are major commercial fisheries and international mechanisms for managing those, and we think those are working fine, though they too will need to adapt as the fish stocks there move further north. In the part of the Arctic closest to the Bering Sea, closest to the United States, there are no commercial fisheries yet, and within U.S. waters in the Arctic, we have just adopted rule that there should be no commercial fishing there until we learn more about the ecology and can set up some management rules for fisheries there. There is also a high seas area in the central part of the Arctic. There is no fishing going on at all there now and probably not for many years. But we do think it’s worthwhile exploring a concept that there ought to be no fishing allowed in that high seas area until some international rules are agreed.

Q: How would you want to go about those international rules in a perfect world of international cooperation?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Balton: Well, we have a symposium that is planned in the United States in Anchorage, Alaska next October. This is mostly a scientific meeting. We’re hoping to meet with other interested countries and civil society to exchange information about fisheries in the Arctic and plan to join research with them to understand better the changes that climate is bringing to the Arctic. We might also want to reaffirm and, at some sort of intergovernmental meeting to follow that symposium, some basic rules that already apply in the Arctic and think about some statement about how to handle the high seas area.

Q: Some of the basics, what are they?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Balton: Over the last decades, here at FAO and the United Nations, countries have agreed to a framework for managing international fisheries, it begins with the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. We have the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement, the FAO High Seas Compliance Agreement, the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, several international plans of action, and some UN General Assembly resolutions. All of this forms a sort of body of law, hard and soft law, that applies already in the Arctic the way it does everywhere in the world.

Q: What’s in there for the Arctic populations, I mean, indigenous people?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Balton: The indigenous people are a big part of why we’re interested in the Arctic because they will depend on the future fisheries of the Arctic. Particularly their lifestyles are very dependent on natural resources and we need to ensure that any future fishing in the Arctic is sustainable because if stocks collapse in the Arctic, the indigenous communities will be most affected.

There are some existing mechanisms for the Arctic or parts of the Arctic in place already. Anything we would create in the future would need somehow to take account of what has already been built. We would like to avoid overlap and duplication. Ideally we would have some system that brings existing institutions together with anything we create in the future.

Q: Like the European Community?

Deputy Assistant Secretary Balton: Oh well, the European Community has interests in the Arctic generally and they have recently come out with an Arctic communication including on Arctic fisheries. But they are more in the nature of another government that may be interested in talking about this. The international institutions in place already include the Arctic Council, the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission. Those are the primary ones.

We don’t have a magic solution today. What’s we’re interested now in is exploring with other responsible governments and civil society how to plan today for managing fisheries in the future. The form and format of such management rules are still to be decided, and we don’t have a specific outcome in mind.

[This is a mobile copy of Arctic Fisheries in Focus]

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