The state of the Arctic 2014

Opening remarks

The opening remarks of Norway's Minister of fisheries Elisabeth Aspaker, at the conference Arctic Frontiers 2014 in Tromsø, on 20th January.

Excellencies, organisers, friends and colleagues,

It is an honour for me, on behalf of the Norwegian Government, to give the opening remarks to this year’s conference. The fact that this conference annually attracts more than 1000 participants, from 25 Arctic and non-arctic countries, points to the widespread interest for the conference and the theme. The interest is broad, including delegates from science, business, politics, and civil society. 

I am both honoured and inspired to be here. I will give you three reasons: 

First because the Arctic is highly important in Norwegian national - as well as foreign politics.

The Norwegian Government sees the High North as its most important foreign policy area, and Norwegian politics in the High North draws on experience and knowledge across generations, sectors and traditional mindsets.   

Second because I believe that forums for cooperation and arenas like Arctic Frontiers are absolutely critical for dealing with issues that cannot be solved by single nation-states. Arenas for knowledge development and exchange are fundamental to cooperation on issues that stretch beyond national interest and responsibility.

Third because I get to talk about the State of the Arctic to fellow delegates and to collectively, contribute to important knowledge-development on Arctic issues.  

I will use this opening remark to give you my view on the state of the Arctic in 2014. 

I will argue the importance of commitment. To international law and to international institutions. Why? Because we need common frameworks and institutions in order to discuss and decide upon international or global issues concerning the Arctic.  

I will argue the need to further invest in knowledge-development and research. The reason is obvious: 

  • so that we can secure an Arctic region where resources are sustainably managed. And where opportunities for economic growth and value creation can be exploited.
  • so that we can achieve knowledge that is needed in order to solve pressing questions of our time. Questions far beyond the geographical borders of the Arctic.  

Increased global attention

The map of the world drawn out from the centre of the Arctic, reminds us not only that perspectives change depending on the position one views the world from. But also that the Arctic plays an important role in major issues concerning our global future:

  • Climate change
  • Globalisation
  • International cooperation
  • Energy security
  • Food security

Finding the right balance between economic development and environmental protection. 

The Arctic has in many instances become the lens through which the world is viewed. While more people might be affected in other parts of the world, the physical changes that will affect the whole planet are most clearly demonstrated in the Arctic.

Today the Arctic 2014 is characterised by increased and growing global attention. There are opportunities to be developed and challenges to be resolved. Successful cooperation and stability to be continued and secured.   

The Arctic we talk about today is not a homogenous region. Climatic conditions and the degree of human activity vary greatly across the region and amongst the arctic states: Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.  

Choosing the most commonly used definition of the Arctic, which incorporates the area north of the Arctic Circle, about one third of Norway and eighty percent of Norwegian waters are included.

Opportunities and challenges

The Arctic is a place of opportunities and challenges.

One can predict that the idea of the Arctic as a place of coldness, isolation and pristine nature is destined to change.

What the Arctic will be, we don’t yet know.

In 1943 the director of IBM Thomas Watson predicted that there might be market potential for five computers in the world. In 1946 Darryl Zanuck, producer at the 20th Century Fox said that television would not last. That people would soon be tired of watching a wooden box each night.     

What we do know is that both the extent and thickness of the Arctic and Subarctic sea ice has declined rapidly over recent decades.

The development of new sea routes and new opportunities to extract hard minerals, oil and gas, as well as renewable marine resources has increased the importance of the Arctic.

The Arctic Ocean connects the Atlantic and the Pacific. Its potential for trade and transport of goods out of the region is obvious. This potential is, on the other hand, dependent on the development of land based and offshore activity in the region, and on the development of better preparedness and response services.

It is estimated that about one fifth of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources may be located in the Arctic, according to the US Geological Survey. Petroleum activity is expanding northwards. Demand for energy will continue to rise.

At the same time, production from existing fields will fall, and the need for new fields will increase. The share of fossil fuels in the energy mix will remain substantial for many years to come, also under a 2 degree Celsius scenario. Natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels, can and should play a central role in our transition to a low-carbon future.

Some of the world’s largest commercial fisheries activity takes place in the oceans surrounding the Arctic. Today these major commercial stocks are some of the richest and best managed fish stocks in the world. 

It has been estimated that in the four last decades of the 20th century, the annual average landings of fish from Arctic and sub-Arctic waters were about six million tons.

In comparison, the total for global marine capture fisheries was about 80 million tons in 2012. Commercial fisheries in the seas surrounding the Arctic are therefore globally significant.

The fisheries constitute a major economic activity in the High North, and in many regions they are critical to the economy of local communities. 

With major opportunities come major responsibilities. Not only for the Arctic states, but for all stakeholders in the Arctic. History tells us that an increase in activity will probably give an increase in the number of challenges. 

We must secure sustainable solutions to emerging environmental challenges.

We must find the right balance between different user interests in the sea areas and at the same time safeguard the environment.

We must recognise that the well-being of communities, viability of economies and sustainability of ecosystems are closely linked.

We must commit to cooperation and we must invest in research.

We must realise that the future of the Arctic is now.

Knowledge-development and research

The new European research programme Horizon2020 has recently been launched.

Never before have European politicians had greater confidence that research-based value creation is the means to develop more jobs and sustainable economic growth. 

Strategic investments are absolutely necessary. Sustainable use of the Arctic’s resources – both renewable and non-renewable resources - requires investments of both financial and intellectual capital. Research and science are essential in developing solutions for the Arctic in the future.

It is in our common interest, as well as being our common responsibility.

From Norway’s side we are now conducting the largest investment in marine research ever. This is the construction of a new ice-class research vessel. The 29th of November I had the pleasure to witness the signing of the construction contract. A new ice-class research vessel will be important for environmental and polar research, as well as resource research in the Arctic. The vessel will be completed in 2016, and be in regular use from the start of 2017.

I have described some of the opportunities and challenges we perceive in the Arctic. I have explained the need to invest in research. Seen in isolation, science is not a universal tool to secure individual social and economic progress. But without scientific progress we cannot secure economic, social and environmental sustainability.    

I will now come back to the second argument I mentioned in the introduction:

The importance of commitment to international law and to international institutions. I will use an example from my own field – the field of fisheries.  

Stability and cooperation  

In a historical context the concept of sustainability is a fairly new one, and for much of human history the ocean has been viewed and treated as an unlimited/infinite resource.

The richness of the fish stocks in the Arctic that we experience today is a result of the three management functions of science, regulations and enforcement - which are well institutionalised in the Arctic coastal states. 

Back in 1988 the cod stock was at a low point. Today the cod stock is estimated to be four times larger than it was 25 years ago. This development would not have been possible without the close and constructive fisheries cooperation between Russia and Norway. In the Barents Sea estimated illegal, unreported catches have fallen from almost a hundred thousand tonnes ten years ago, to close to zero since 2009.

It is in our common interest to have good cooperation not only with Russia, but with all stakeholders in the Arctic.

Looking ahead, there are important challenges for fisheries management in the Arctic. This is not least due to changes in the global climate.

Many fish stocks are at a high level today, and they are spreading over a larger area in search of food. As the Arctic ice retreats and leaves new areas of open sea, changes may occur in the distribution pattern of various fish stocks. We do not know what changes will occur, and, in order to monitor them, cooperation within marine research should be maintained and, if possible, increased. Good knowledge is the basis of good management decisions. It seems fairly unlikely, however, that there will be a basis for new commercial fisheries of any importance in the central Arctic Ocean in the foreseeable future. Despite this, we already perceive management challenges in adjacent waters. 

The mackerel stock is currently in great shape, and has expanded its distribution area both northward and westward over the last 5 - 6 years.

A result of this, there is more mackerel in Norway’s waters, and also Iceland and the Faroes. Regrettably, we are now approaching the fifth year without a coastal state agreement on the management of the mackerel stock.

Almost all of Norway’s fish stocks are shared with other nations. This means that the principles behind sharing arrangements are very important to us. Our main principle is that ownership of a fish stock should be based on the zonal attachment of the stock – that is the geographical distribution of the stock over the year. It is Norway’s view that any solution for the sharing of the mackerel stock between the coastal states must be based on this principle.

I have brought up the example of mackerel to show that there is no doubt that there is - and will be - future disagreements over the management of resources in the Arctic.

Even so – it is important to say that overall there are few unresolved jurisdictional issues. The Arctic is a peaceful corner of the world. Common commitment to cooperation in the Arctic has been, and will be a key to future success.

Today we also see great interest from non-Arctic players, both in Europe and in Asia that want to take part in the development of the Arctic region as it becomes more accessible. Even with such great levels of interest, there is a high degree of consensus that exists at these high latitudes.

Challenges in the Arctic are shared challenges. Single nations cannot solve problems they encounter by themselves. Cooperation cannot depend on human will and determination alone. It must be rooted in common conventions, interests and a deeper sense of common destiny.

Jean Monnet (regarded by many as a chief architect of European unity and one of the founding fathers of the European Union) said that "nothing can be achieved without people, but nothing becomes permanent without institutions".

Although the Arctic Council is not an international institution as such, it is the only government-level, circumpolar body for political cooperation in the Arctic.

It is an important arena for discussing common challenges.

In 2008 the 8 nations in the Arctic Council agreed that there was no need for separate international regulations in the Arctic. There is widespread agreement that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea defines rights, responsibilities and obligations in Arctic marine and coastal waters. There are well established mechanisms and institutions to deal with the issues we are facing in the Arctic.

There will be disagreements and different views in the future. The key is that we have strong mechanisms for solving them and a common commitment to cooperation.

Concluding remarks

In my introduction I gave you three reasons why I am honoured and inspired to be here. I will repeat these reasons:

  • Arctic issues are highly important to Norwegian national as well as international politics.
  • Institutions and arenas like Arctic Frontiers are absolutely critical for dealing with issues concerning the Arctic that cannot be solved by single nation-states.
  • I believe this audience and the delegates of this conference are highly competent and will contribute to important knowledge-development on Arctic issues.    

I truly look forward to the rest of the day.

Thank you.