Author: Abigael Mahony
On Jan. 9, 2009, just days before leaving office, former President George W. Bush signed a new Arctic policy directive. The first revision of U.S. Arctic policy since 1994, the document states that “the U.S. is an Arctic nation, with varied and compelling interests in the region,” including “broad and fundamental national security interests … and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests.” It calls for Senate ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, recognition of the Northwest Passage as an international strait and the strengthening of institutions for cooperation among the eight Arctic nations in the Arctic Council (the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden).
Despite the appeal for cooperation among Arctic nations, the U.S. demand for international access to the Northwest Passage violates Canada's claim of sovereignty over the passage.
Canada maintains the Northwest Passage is a Canadian waterway, and therefore all traffic through it is subject to Canadian taxes and regulations. The U.S. views the passage as an international waterway; non-Canadian vessels should have free and equal access to the northern Arctic waters. A Canadian newspaper, the Calgary Herald, described the U.S. decree as another forceful rebuttal of Canadian sovereignty.
Agreeing with the U.S., some European parliamentary officials also challenge Canada's territorial claims to the Arctic waters. The diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Canada highlights the developing political power struggle over the potential gas and oil resources newly accessible in the Arctic as a result of global warming.
In late February, both Russia and Denmark reaffirmed that disputes over Arctic resources must be decided by international law, although Russia has stepped up patrols in the region. In part due to the prospective opening of the Arctic Ocean, the five Nordic states, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, have proposed a “declaration of solidarity.”
The proposal, which includes a mutual defense pact, would bring greater cooperation among the countries over diplomatic and security issues, including joint monitoring of the polar region. Some analysts argue that this proposal is “Russia-inspired,” as Moscow has signaled that the Arctic region will be a priority for its economic and security interests.
Uncertainty about the effects of climate warming on the Arctic led to a unanimous vote in early February 2009 by the U.S. North Pacific Fishery Management Council to close off a large area of the Arctic sea to commercial fishing. The federal ban protects more than 150,000 square nautical miles north of the Bering Strait. Until recently, ice sheets covered the water, but as these have melted, the region has become accessible to commercial fishing boats. The prohibition, supported by both industry and conservation groups, represents the first time the U.S. has closed a fishing area as a result of climate change. Previously, fisheries have only been closed due to overfishing. David Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, stated that the council's decision was the first step toward an international decree preventing overfishing in newly accessible northern sea areas. As stated by the council, the ban will remain in effect until a greater scientific understanding of the region, including the impact of warming on the local species, is ascertained. Indigenous populations, however, will be allowed to continue subsistence fishing.
Indeed, scientists are one step closer to understanding the impact of global warming on the Arctic following the release in February of a marine census documenting 5,500 species in the Arctic and 7,500 species in the Antarctic. Conducted during the 2007–2008 International Polar Year, and compiled by over 500 researchers from 25 countries, the survey is one of the main projects of the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year international collaborative effort to catalog all life in the oceans. Several hundred species believed to be new to science were documented, mostly invertebrates, including sea spiders and tiny shrimp-like crustaceans. And, curiously, some 235 species were found living in both polar seas, a biological mystery, as the seas are separated by nearly 7,000 miles.
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