A US diplomat who’s long worked on Arctic issues leaves on a high note

By Yereth Rosen, Arctic Now - December 14, 2017
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U.S. Ambassador David Balton briefs media on the recent Arctic Council meeting held in Anchorage, at the National Park Service building on Friday, October 23, 2015. The U.S. is the current chair of the Arctic Council. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News file photo)
U.S. Ambassador David Balton briefs media after an Arctic Council meeting in Anchorage in 2015. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News file photo)

For years, David Balton has guided U.S. Arctic policy at the State Department, where his career spans three decades and over several presidential administrations. He has been an ambassador since 2005, deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries since 2009 and, during the 2015-17 U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council, he led the council’s Senior Arctic Officials.

Now, as the career diplomat prepares to leave the State Department for a fellowship at the Wilson Center’s Polar Initiative, he can celebrate one more accomplishment: a binding 10-government agreement to prevent unregulated fishing in 1.1 million square miles of international waters in the Central Arctic Ocean. And it’s an accomplishment that gives him hope for continued international cooperation in the Arctic.

[Negotiators reach deal to ban commercial fishing in international Arctic waters]

In an area called the “Arctic donut hole,” the warming climate has created open waters where there used to be year-round ice cover — and fears that fishing vessels will move in and start unfettered exploitation.

Under the agreement, there will be no commercial fishing for 16 years, and after that only if there is enough scientific information gathered to form a complete fishery-management plan.

The agreement also sets up a formal scientific program to better understand the Central Arctic Ocean. Up until now, there has been some information cooperation between scientists of different countries who are studying the area, Balton said. Parallel to the negotiations on the fishing agreement were meeting between fishery scientists of the participating nations, he said.

“The scientists are doing a better job, I think, of figuring out what the questions are that we really need to be asking and figuring out how to collaborate and share data,” Balton said.

The Central Arctic Ocean is a tough place to do research, so scientists have been discussing ways to pool resources, he said. Once the fisheries agreement enters into force, there will be “a stronger platform and a more formal platform for carrying out these joint scientific exercises,” he said. The formal program could also inspire participating governments to chip in more money to support Arctic Ocean science, he said.

At some point in the future, Balton said, they may be commercial fishing in the international zone of the Arctic Ocean.

“That is certainly the expectation and the hope, at least the hope of the states outside the region,” he said. “You might ask yourself the question: Why were delegations from China, Japan, Korea, the EU in particular, Iceland, interested in negotiating this agreement? It is because they believe someday in the future, this area, this high seas area, will support a viable commercial fishery and they want to be part of the management system at that point.”

For now, all parties agree that too little is known about the Arctic Ocean to allow any such harvests.  “We don’t want it start up before there’s enough science with which to manage a fishery properly, and we’re a long way from that time,” he said.

The fisheries agreement has some larger implications. It shows that the U.S. and Russia, though their overall relations are strained, can work together in a positive way on some subjects. That has been a theme in the Arctic, Balton said.

“Despite differences with Russia in other parts of the world on other issues, the Arctic generally has been characterized by a fairly high level of cooperation,” he said. The Arctic Council has been the venue for much of that Arctic cooperation, but not all of it, he said.

“Here, even outside the Arctic Council, we have common interests with Russia. We have exclusive economic zones in the Arctic and we don’t want to see unregulated fishing in the high seas area just beyond our respective zones starting up,” he said. “So we have that common ground from which to work.”

The U.S. and Russia cooperated on a previous fisheries agreement that turned out to be an important precursor for last week’s Arctic fisheries agreement.

That process, which started when the Soviet Union was still intact, produced a 1994 agreement to stop fish harvests in the 50,000-square-mile international zone of the Bering Sea. Balton negotiated the Bering Sea donut hole agreement signed by the US, Russia, China, Japan, Korea and Poland.

The fishery being conducted in the Bering Sea donut hole in the 1970s and 1980s was unregulated, and led to the collapse of fish stocks. The fish population has still not recovered even two decades after the agreement.

“It was a cautionary tale about what can happen if an unregulated fishery is allowed to be prosecuted in the Arctic, in the high-seas area of the Arctic.”

Beyond his fisheries work, Balton’s tenure at state has several Arctic highlights.

“I’ve been blessed to work on a lot of fun stuff in the Arctic at a time when the international community seemed very interested in trying to grapple with the changes coming to the region,” he said.

In earlier years, for example, he co-chaired negotiations that resulted in binding agreements made by the Arctic Council, on search-and-rescue cooperation and on joint work to prevent and respond to oil spills.

As chair of the SAO group, he was able to see the full range of Arctic Council operations. That includes the important role played by indigenous peoples, he said. Indigenous groups, as “permanent participants” in the council, have nearly the same powers as national governments when it comes to policies and decisions, he said.

With the Arctic Ocean continuing to open up and other changes happening at a fast pace, the Arctic Council and other institutions will have to evolve, Balton said. There is more work to be done to figure out relations between Arctic governments and outside governments with interests in the Arctic, he said.

The institutions set up now are “adequate for today but are unlikely to remain adequate for that much longer. We will need some different things over the next 10, 20 years,” he said.

Balton will continue to work on Arctic issues even after he leaves the State Department.

Along with his experience, he takes some travel memories to his new post as a global fellow with the Wilson Center. Among them: an October trip a few years ago to the northernmost community in the U.S., then named Barrow, but now officially renamed Utqiagvik. He and former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp, who served during the Obama administration as the State Department’s special representative for the Arctic, took in a Barrow High School Whalers homecoming football game.

“Admiral Papp actually flipped the coin to start the game,” Balton said. “Just the fact that there is a football field up there and they flew out the team from the southern part of Alaska and played in these conditions, that was something I had never expected to watch.”