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Canada agrees to work to prevent fishing in High Arctic until there's more study

This handout photo provided by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows Arctic sea ice in 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, NOAA

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This handout photo provided by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows Arctic sea ice in 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, NOAA

Canada and four other Arctic nations have agreed to work toward a deal to block commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean until more is known about the potential of the resource.

The agreement with the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway was reached late Wednesday in Nuuk, Greenland, after three days of talks.

"The participants recognized the need for interim precautionary measures to prevent any future commercial fisheries without the prior establishment of appropriate regulatory mechanisms," said a news release issued from Nuuk.

"The participants will work toward the establishment of such interim measures."

The five Arctic coastal nations each regulate fishing up to 200 nautical miles from their shores, but that leaves a large regulatory hole in the central Arctic Ocean.

No commercial fishery currently exists in that part of the ocean, which was until recently permanently covered by sea ice. Scientists say as much as 40 per cent is now clear at least part of the year, opening it up to commercial exploitation. Nearby waters hold fish species such as turbot and Arctic cod.

In 2012, more than 2,000 scientists from 67 countries called for a moratorium on commercial fishing in the Arctic until more research is completed. The scientists said the regulatory gap could make the region a target for large bottom trawlers, which would put stress on fish populations.

Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said the federal government is pleased with the agreement.

"We appreciate the level of attention the Arctic Ocean Coastal States are devoting to this issue," she said in a release. "It is imperative that we take a leadership role to prevent unsustainable fishing in the Arctic Ocean high seas."

Going into the meeting, Canada, the U.S. and Denmark were backing the fishing ban. Norway and Russia were not.

"The good news coming out of Nuuk is that the five countries achieved a consensus that the central Arctic Ocean is not ready for commercial fishing until science and management measures are more developed," said Scott Highleyman, a representative of the environmental arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts and a member of the American delegation.

"They set themselves an ambitious agenda for the rest of 2014 to confirm the results of the Nuuk meeting and reach out to other nations."

Still, more could have been expected of talks in which none of the parties had anything to lose, said Michael Byers, professor of Arctic and international law at the University of British Columbia.

"Given that there is no commercial fishing taking place, it should be relatively easy to agree," he said. "All they have been able to agree on is that there should be some interim measures.

"The meeting in Nuuk produced nothing of significance."

Since the waters under discussion don't actually come under the jurisdiction of any of the five countries involved, they acknowledged the need to bring the rest of the world on board. Their statement promises to start talks on getting other countries to commit to staying out of the central Arctic Ocean before the end of the year.

"The best way to achieve the stated goal is an international agreement signed by Arctic and non-Arctic countries," Highleyman said. "That is how we should measure ultimate success toward protecting this ocean emerging from the ice."

The statement also commits the countries to scientific research to try to understand what's happening with fish populations.

No commercial fishing in those waters is expected in the immediate future.

Ultimately, the international community will have to set up some sort of fisheries regulator similar to those already in place for regions such as the North Atlantic, said Byers.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said fishing is regulated 200 kilometres from shore.

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