Governance of the Central Arctic Ocean: Cooperative Currents, Foggy Future

Dr David VanderZwaag1

1Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada

Out of sight, out of mind. Those words describe the level of political and public attention paid until recently to the central Arctic Ocean (CAO), the large “donut hole” of high seas lying beyond the adjacent 200 mile national zones of the five coastal States. The area has not been subject to fishing or substantial harvesting of other living marine resources. The region has been navigated by relatively few ships.

Over the past decade, the attitude of neglect has begun to change. The need to address future governance of the CAO has garnered considerable academic and public attention in light of retreating and thinning sea ice and projections that the Arctic might be free of summer sea ice in the next ten years or much later.

This presentation will first highlight the global and regional cooperative agreements and initiatives relevant to governance of the CAO. Global cooperative currents include: the law of the sea as the overarching framework; various multilateral environmental agreements and the Polar Shipping Code with its new safety and pollution discharge standards. Regional cooperative eddies include: discussions within the Arctic Council to possibly establish one or more particularly sensitive sea areas in the CAO and adoption in October 2018 of an Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the CAO.

The presentation will then proceed to describe the “foggy future”. Four main uncertainties will be reviewed: questions surrounding implementation of the new legally binding agreement on CAO fisheries; determinations of extended continental shelf boundaries; unclear future steps to address shipping in the CAO; and the implications for the Arctic of a new international agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ Agreement).


David VanderZwaag is Professor of Law and Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Ocean Law and Governance at the Marine & Environmental Law Institute, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University. He is a member of the International Council of Environmental Law as well as the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL). From 2004-2018, he co-chaired the WCEL’s Specialist Group on Oceans, Coasts and Coral Reefs. Dr. VanderZwaag has authored over 150 papers in the marine and environmental law field. His co-edited book publications include: Polar Oceans Governance in an Era of Environmental Change (Edward Elgar, 2014).

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