At the human level, cooperation is a way of survival in the Arctic. It’s how indigenous people have not only survived, but thrived, in what are extreme conditions to those of us from the temperate zone of the planet. Scaling up cooperation from families and communities to the level of nation-states is just as important for the Arctic and takes many of the same skills: listening to diverse views, learning from past mistakes, a precautionary approach to changing circumstance and a willingness to compromise.
I saw all these skills in play at a meeting of ten nations last month discussing how potential commercial fishing should be handled in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO), the international waters surrounding the North Pole. This 1.1 million square mile area of ocean has been frozen year round for hundreds of thousands of years. Although still frozen in winter, up to 40% of the CAO has been open water in recent summers. Under international law, such high seas areas are open to commercial fishing unless countries come together to impose rules and management measures. Fishing hasn’t started in the area yet but history teaches that exploratory fishing will push into any untapped ocean, often before scientists have a chance to figure out baseline ecosystem conditions and the size of fish stocks. Scientists tell us this could be especially problematic in the Arctic Ocean where fish like Arctic cod are an essential conduit of life, transforming energy from plankton to the upper trophic level of seabirds, seals, whales and polar bears.