Fishing for future legacies? The ‘Opening up’ the Central Arctic Ocean

By Klaus Dodds, Berit Kristoffersen & Phil Steinberg


The Central Nordic Sea (Source:


Last week, an open letter written by a group of scientists from around the world was released urging 10 international actors (five Arctic Ocean coastal states such as Canada, Russia and the United States and five extra-territorial parties including China, the European Union and Japan) to develop and implement an agreement on fisheries management for the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO).

The letter notes their collective hope that after several years of negotiation “a successful agreement, demonstrating their commitment to sound stewardship of the Arctic Ocean and peaceful international cooperation” should be possible. Such a commitment would appear to be the logical next step forward after the 2015 Oslo Declaration wherein the five Arctic Ocean coastal states stated that they would refrain from fishing in the high seas of the CAO. Their rationale was that there was insufficient understanding of the ecology of the CAO, and thus it was not possible at present to judge what would be prudent and precautionary when it came to living resource exploitation. Although the Declaration did not specifically call for the establishment of a regional fisheries management organization (RFMO) to monitor and manage fish stocks, it would not be unreasonable to read the Declaration as a first step in this direction.

While we commend the attention being drawn to managing fisheries in the CAO, we are struck by the manner in which discussions have so quickly centred on a referent geographical object – the Central Arctic Ocean – when, in fact, neither the borders of this object nor its geophysical properties are at all clear. Not that many decades ago, geographers were speculating about whether there was a ‘supposed open polar sea’ somewhere around the North Pole, while others marked their maps with the simple designator ‘frozen ocean’. Far from being a fishing ground, just a few decades ago when states turned their attention to the CAO it was typically with reference to the cover that it provided for nuclear submarines and the possibilities for that cover to be broken by nuclear icebreakers. Others, from early 20th century explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson to late 20th century Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev imagined the CAO as a ‘Polar Mediterranean’ where interests, continents, and peoples could come together In peaceful interchange.

The opening up of the CAO as a prospective fishing ground, or as a sanctuary for fragile fisheries, is thus more than just a political, legal, or economic matter. Like the images of the Frozen North or the Polar Mediterranean, the imagination of the CAO as an ecosystem is a profoundly imaginative and material affair. In the emergent CAO, sea ice loss and shrinkage combine with new cartographies of the Arctic Ocean that highlight the presence of open water and thinning sea ice, and the ecological processes that these changes beget, rather than a solid, frozen desert. Thus when the Atlas of Marine Protection declares the CAO to be a ‘hotspot’ it draws on the illustrative example of fecund Mediterranean fisheries as well as appeals to the calculations of fisheries science:

The Arctic Ocean is one of the planet’s most pristine marine regions. But new maps show its permanent ice is diminishing due to climate change, opening the international waters of the Central Arctic Ocean to commercial fishing. These waters encompass an area as big as the Mediterranean Sea and are not currently governed by any international fisheries agreements. Such an agreement is needed to close this region to commercial fishing unless and until scientific knowledge and management measures can ensure a sustainable fishery.

This image of the CAO – ‘open’ and teeming with fish — is no less partial than those that preceded it – the CAO as icy desert or as connective Mediterranean. In each instance, elements of the CAO’s material state are merged with anticipated social utility (or disutility) to construct an imaginary seascape.

The essentialisation of marine space – associating it with a specific kind of environment and then bounding that environment with discrete geographical coordinates – prevails in marine management initiatives, but it is often insensitive to the complexities and vagaries of both geophysical and geographical borders. As we have previously noted with specific reference to the ‘edge’ where sea ice meets open waters, sea ice is dynamic and conventional 2D maps struggle to capture the volumetric qualities of it – height, depth and thickness – as well as changes over time:

Drawing a line on a map and calling it an ice edge smooths over insecurities, scientific knowledge gaps, and ecological risks involved in conducting economic activities above or below that line. It follows that sea ice management needs to be directed less toward protecting the places where sea ice was most recently located and more toward management of a zone where, amidst probabilities of its occurrence, environmental and social processes are preserved.

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 18.41.17

An historic map of the supposed open Polar Sea. Image Source: Silas Bent (1872). An Address Delivered before the St. Louis Mercantile Library Association, January 6th, 1872, upon the Thermal Paths to the Pole, the Currents of the Ocean, and the Influence of the Latter upon the Climates of the World


If a RFMO for the CAO does come to fruition, then it is going build upon and articulate with a host of pre-existing oceanic zonings: high seas, exclusive economic zones, outer continental shelves, territorial waters. While a RFMO in the CAO may solve some problems, its efficacy will remain constrained by the ocean’s incessant dynamism: ice floes move, fish move, water molecules move. Thus, even as the CAO is ‘opened up’ for fishing and for new institutions of regulatory intervention, these interventions may well ‘close’ it through the drawing of indefensible lines between ice and water, between ice and land, and between the CAO and adjacent, but intimately interconnected, seas. Thus, the potential legacy of this effort to fill policy-and knowledge gaps may end up being a division of the elements and ecologies that it is supposed to interconnect.

We wonder, therefore, whether the ‘opening up’ of the CAO could be an opportunity for different sorts of engagement with the Arctic Ocean – central or littoral. In contrast to the capacious literatures on the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, the world’s smallest ocean has received far less attention from social science and humanities scholars. But as anthropogenic change continues to leave its marks on the surface and depth of the Arctic Ocean, we have opportunities to consider afresh a trans-national and more-than-human history and geography of inhabiting, mapping, measuring, naming, investigating and claiming this oceanic space. Recognizing the spaces of interconnection to the rest of the world will be all the more important in the forthcoming climate summit in Bonn (COP23), where the rate and extent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions will determine how uneven the geographical consequences of climate change impacts will continue to be. The oceans are pivotal and long-term sea ice loss will have consequences for the CAO and its environmental and resource governance.

Multiple Openings

The high seas of the CAO are ripe for further intellectual consideration. Where once authors such as the Belgian cartoonist Hergé imagined an international hunt for meteorites (The Shooting Star 1942), now the conversation has moved on to seabed minerals, shipping lanes and fish stocks (although tellingly, perhaps, Tintin was scalded by the warming waters of the Arctic while trying to recover a fragment of a meteorite).

As a global common, the legal status of the CAO owes its existence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its zonation of ocean and sea. Beyond the 200 nautical mile limit of the exclusive economic zones lie the world’s high seas. These are areas of seas and oceans that depend on international agreement in order to check and balance conservation with appropriation and extraction. Checking the instinct to do the latter has been arguably one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the light of coastal states’ desires to expand their sovereign rights over the seabed and waters of the world’s oceans. The Arctic Ocean’s seabed and waters have not been spared this impulse to legalize, privatize and securitize.

But there might be another way of mapping the increasingly ‘open’ Arctic Ocean. Rather than focusing on the Arctic Ocean as a discreet geographical space we might see it as an inter-locking element in a series of spaces that make up the Arctic and beyond. As the migrations of the region’s indigenous inhabitants and its non-human actors such as whales and seabirds, as well as the circulation of water itself, remind us, the Arctic Ocean is but one element in a wider network of migration and interaction. So conventional maps of the CAO need not tether our imaginations when it comes to thinking of those boundaries as fundamentally porous. Where the CAO begins and ends could be a far more unrestricted, and ultimately more provocative, question.


About the authors…

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London

Berit Kristoffersen is an Associate Professor of Political Geography at the Arctic University of Norway

Phil Steinberg is Professor of Political Geography at the University of Durham

One thought on “Fishing for future legacies? The ‘Opening up’ the Central Arctic Ocean

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:

    New blogpost with Klaus Dodds and Berit Kristoffersen on fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean…..out now on the Royal Holloway Geopolitics & Security website.

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