Nine countries and the European Union will this week sign the agreement to prevent exploitation of a region covering 2.8 million sq km, roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea, for 16 years or longer, if they agree. It will be the first time the area has had any legal protection.
Ships may now travel across parts of the ocean that used to be ice, as temperatures have risen.
When the polar sea ice reached its annual lowest point last month, the amount measured tied with 2008 and 2010 as the sixth-lowest sea ice minimum recorded in 40 years.
Scientists say that in recent decades increasing temperatures have led to significant decreases in both summer and winter sea ice, and predict that the declines will affect the planet’s weather patterns and the circulation of the oceans.
Commercial fishing does not take place there currently but large ships are starting to explore the area. Fishing fleets are likely to want to take advantage of stocks being driven there in search of cooler waters as seas warm, and stocks dwindle in traditional waters.
Countries involved in the deal – the US, China, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Japan and South Korea – plus the EU will meet in Greenland to sign the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, following several years of talks.
At the same time the nations will also launch scientific monitoring of the ecosystem and may extend the ban in five-year increments depending on their findings.
David Balton, former US ambassador for oceans and fisheries, who helped negotiate the pact, said the monitoring would help determine when commercial fishing might be viable and how best to manage it.
“The Arctic is special because it is warming faster than probably any other part of the planet, more than twice as fast as the global average. And this is bringing about profound change,” Mr Balton told the the US-based Pew Charitable Trusts research group.
“A principal objective of the joint programme is to determine how the ecosystems – and I use that word in plural, because there are probably more than one – in the central Arctic Ocean are changing
“And those changes in the range and migration of fish stocks and other fauna moving up into the Arctic could affect the decision about when and how to launch commercial fisheries in the future.”
Greenpeace is already battling moves by oil giants towards a new “oil rush” in the Arctic Ocean.
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