July 30, 2015 - 6:51am - By Egill Thor Nielsson and Dr Bjarni Mar Magnusson

On July 16 the so-called ‘Arctic five’ countries signed a “Declaration concerning the prevention of unregulated high seas fishing in the central Arctic Ocean” in Oslo. The declaration applies to the five signatory countries: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (in respect of Greenland), the Kingdom of Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States of America. The three other Arctic countries, Finland, Iceland and Sweden, as well as indigenous groups and global Arctic stakeholders such as Japan, China and the European Union, were not invited, in an official capacity, to participate in framing the declaration.

The agreement comes at a time when there is no commercial fishing in international waters in the Arctic Ocean and is presented as a precautionary measure. The idea behind the agreement, including its focus on need for further scientific research and its application of international law, are in line with what most Arctic fisheries stakeholders agree on. Most media outlets have focused on the positive aspects of the declaration. With, for example, The New York Times taking an early position for the declaration, describing it as both essential and a template for further Arctic co-operation. However, commentators have largely overlooked the exclusive manner of the declaration and its disregard for the Arctic Council as the pre-eminent intergovernmental forum for addressing issues related to the Arctic region.

Return of the “Arctic five”. A good idea?

Arctic co-operation has long been hailed for its constructive nature. However, there have been exceptions. Most notably with two meetings of five Arctic Council countries – which have sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction, in some form, in large areas of the Arctic Ocean – in Illulisat, Greenland (2008) and in Chelsea, Canada (2010). At the second meeting Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, openly criticised Canada as a host for not inviting the three other Arctic countries and Arctic indigenous groups to the meeting. The ‘Arctic five’ collaboration seemed to be a fish on land until this declaration (which has nonetheless been underway for a few years).

The Arctic Council has grown substantially since 2010; facilitating the negotiating of two legally-binding agreements between all eight Arctic countries for Co-operation on Search and Rescue (2011) and Response to Oil Spills (2013), establishing an permanent secretariat in Tromsø, Norway (2013) and opening its door for new observers such as China, India and Singapore – establishing the council as a global player and the most important forum for Arctic affairs. The question thus remains, why did these five Arctic Council countries decide to negotiate Arctic Ocean fisheries declaration outside the realm of a proven and constructive forum for Arctic cooperation?

Strategic interests

The issue of fisheries is not of strategic importance for the larger Arctic countries, at least not in the same respects as for example the development of Arctic oil in Alaskan waters would be to the US or increased Arctic shipping traffic on the Northern Sea Route is to Russia. In 2012-2013 the export earnings of seafood only account for approximately 6% of Norway’s (70% comes from aquaculture), 4% in Denmark and less than 1% of the export earnings of the United States, Canada and Russia.

The portion is significantly higher in Iceland, where it accounts for around 40% and crucial to both Greenland and the Faroe Islands where fish and fish products count for around 90% of merchandise exports. Greenland (and the Faroe Islands) had a seat at the table during the drafting of the declaration on behalf of the Kingdom of Denmark while Iceland openly protested being excluded from a decision directly impacting a core sector of its economy.

Undermining the Arctic Council

The declaration is exemplary in many regards to the need of strengthened Arctic research and it is positive that Western countries and Russia are co-operating. Constructive forums and dialogues in bilateral and region-specific manners are positive, but when declarations and agreements are reached that go beyond the regional influence of the group then exclusion becomes a problem.

The fact that Iceland, a small Arctic Ocean coastal country with its livelihood dependent on fisheries, is not invited to participate despite many requests is illogical. In addition, the disregard for the Arctic Council as a platform for negotiations during the Canadian chairmanship (2013-2015) and now the US (2015-2017) is worrisome. It is of utmost importance that Arctic co-operation remains inclusive and that the ends don’t justify the means, with large powers ignoring the interests of smaller or outside stakeholders.

Egill Thor Nielsson is executive secretary of the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center and a visiting scholar at the Polar Research Institute of China.

Dr Bjarni Mar Magnusson is aauthor of “The Continental Shelf Beyond 200 Nautical Miles”, he is an assistant Professor of international law at Reykjavik University and a Fulbright Arctic Initiative Scholar (2015-2016).