Those challenges – of life-threatening accidents, oil spills and over-fishing – are increasing as the sea-ice melts and ships of all kinds gain access.
The 1959 Antarctic Treaty is sometimes advanced as a model for Arctic governance. But the Antarctic Treaty was concluded before nations had developed vested interests there.
The Arctic has already seen more activity than the Antarctic. Fully 20 per cent of Russia’s GDP comes from its Arctic territories, mostly as revenue from oil and gas. And unlike the Antarctic, the Arctic is home to indigenous peoples.
The Arctic is also already substantially regulated by domestic and international laws. For while the Antarctic is a continent surrounded by oceans, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents. All of the land belongs incontestably to one or another Arctic nation, with the insignificant exception of Hans Island, a rocky islet halfway between Greenland and Canada.
The Arctic Ocean itself is governed by the law of the sea, which all nations accept as customary international law. Developed through centuries of diplomatic practice, these rules have been codified in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which most nations – though not yet the United States – have ratified.
As in the rest of the world, the territorial seas of Arctic nations extend 12 nautical miles from shore. Within that band, coastal states have extensive powers over foreign shipping and absolute rights over fish and seabed resources such as oil and gas. Between 12 and 200 miles, in the so-called exclusive economic zone, coastal states have no powers over foreign shipping but absolute rights to fish, oil and gas.
The crucial issues in the central Arctic Ocean concern ship safety and fisheries management. For this reason, the United States recently led the negotiation of a search-and-rescue treaty involving all Arctic nations, including Russia. The treaty designates zones of coastal state responsibility for search-and-rescue that extend into international waters all the way to the North Pole.
As the Arctic Ocean warms, commercially valuable fish species such as Pacific Sockeye Salmon and Atlantic Cod are moving north. Those species that exist within the high seas, or move between the high seas and the exclusive economic zones of coastal states, are acutely vulnerable to long-range fishing fleets from non-Arctic countries.
In 2008, Senators Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska co-sponsored a Senate resolution directing the US government to negotiate the establishment of an international fisheries management organisation for the Arctic Ocean. Similar organisations already exist and are effective in the North Atlantic and elsewhere.
Setting up such an organisation would require the support of other Arctic nations, and membership would have to be open to non-Arctic nations also. These countries would thus have access to the fisheries beyond 200 nautical miles from shore, but only if science-based consensus on quotas was achieved.
But again, it’s often easier to achieve international agreement before the interests of nations become entrenched. For this reason, speed is of the essence. The high seas north of the Bering Strait are already ice-free in late summer – and closer to South Korea, Japan and China than many of the places where their long-range fishing boats currently operate.
The Arctic is not the Wild West zone of popular imagination, but neither is it a region where international cooperation is complete. As the ice melts, new rules for shipping and fishing are needed, quickly.
Michael Byers is a professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver