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This article originally appeared in The Circle 03.17. Find back issues here.

The Barents Sea region stands out as one of the better-governed eco-political marine regions. ALEXANDER VYLEGZHANIN and ORAN YOUNG tell us why.

LOCATED TO THE NORTH of Norway and the European part of the Russian Federation, the Barents comprises areas largely under the jurisdiction of those states. Although there are numerous ways to delineate its boundaries, the Barents region encompasses an area of ~3 million kilometres. It is distinct from other marine regions at high latitudes because the bulk of the Barents region has been ice free, year-round in modern times.

Regional, bilateral cooperation between Norway and Russia dealing with matters of common concern, especially fisheries management, began in the 1950s.

The 2010 Barents Sea Treaty on boundary delimitation resolved a longstanding dispute over jurisdiction in the central part of the Barents Sea, solidifying and extending international cooperation. Today, three bilateral mechanisms dealing with fisheries, hydrocarbon deposits, and environmental protection handle governance in the Barents. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) provides scientific advice especially regarding annual allowable harvest levels for major fisheries.

Some key changes need to be acknowledged, including fluctuations in the abundance and spatial distribution of key stocks of living resources (e.g. Northeast Arctic Cod) and the spread of species not native to the region (e.g. snow crabs). Other important changes are the growth of functionally distinct human activities that interact with one another in important ways.

Natural fluctuations in Northeast Arctic Cod stocks have led ICES to recommend reductions in allowable harvest levels for 2017 and 2018. Shifts in the spatial distribution of cod have increased opportunities for fishers from third states to harvest fish in “the loophole,” encompassing waters beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones of the coastal states. This has resulted in quotas that exceed ICES recommendations, opened opportunities for Faroese and Icelandic fishers in the region, and increased pressure to devise a more explicit mechanism for recognizing the interests of harvesters not associated with the coastal states.

While fisheries remain the primary human activity in this region, interest in exploiting Barents Sea hydrocarbons is rising, with the volume of commercial shipping thus generating additional environmental risks. The Barents Sea itself has large deposits of hydrocarbons, and shipments of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Port of Sabetta on the Yamal Peninsula passing through the region are expected to ramp up substantially. Hydrocarbon development is a politically sensitive issue both in Norway and the Russian Federation. Shifts in world market prices could intensify these concerns in short order.

Governance arrangements in the region are currently segmented along functional lines. Fisheries and hydrocarbons are handled through separate Norwegian-Russian arrangements; commercial shipping is subject to regulatory measures (e.g. the Polar Code) negotiated under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization. The key concern here is the need for an integrated governance system capable of weighing trade-offs among competing human activities and making decisions on a more synoptic basis.

Overarching these concerns is the issue of creating or enlarging marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Barents Sea Region. There are already sizable protected areas in the Svalbard Archipelago under Norwegian jurisdiction and Frans Josefs Land under Russian jurisdiction. Norway and (increasingly) Russia make use of ecosystem-based management in their policy processes, and the Joint Commission on Environmental Protection plays an advocacy role in efforts to protect the ecosystems of the region. With the growth of human activities in the Barents, however, calls for more MPAs are increasing. Various groups, including WWF, have identified priority areas for some form of protection. A key issue now concerns the development of a governance system that will ensure decisions about these matters are integrated with decisions dealing with fisheries, hydrocarbon development, and shipping.

ALEXANDER VYLEGZHANIN is professor and head of the Department of International Law, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University).

ORAN YOUNG is professor emeritus & codirector of the Program on Governance for Sustainable Development at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, University of California (Santa Barbara)

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