10 May 2012: Report

Melting Sea Ice Could Lead
To Pressure on Arctic Fishery

With melting sea ice opening up previously inaccessible parts of the Arctic Ocean, the fishing industry sees a potential bonanza. But some scientists and government officials have begun calling for a moratorium on fishing in the region until the true state of the Arctic fishery is assessed.

by ed struzik

When scientists with the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program began tracking 323 vertebrate species across the entire Arctic several years ago, most assumed that many fish and animals would not fare well in a region where rapid warming is causing such profound changes.

But in a report released recently at the International Polar Year (IPY) conference in Montreal, that scenario isn’t turning out to be as dark as some
A key concern is the so-called 1.1 million-square-mile ‘donut hole’ in the central Arctic Ocean.
had originally thought. While it appears that ice-dependent mammals such as polar bears and beluga whales could be in trouble, scientists are reporting that the great bowhead whale that was nearly hunted to extinction in the early twentieth century is making a remarkable comeback. And commercial fish populations such as Pacific herring and ocean perch appear to be expanding dramatically in some places.

Not surprisingly, the world’s fishing industry is watching the swift disappearance of Arctic sea ice and the potential fishing bonanza with great interest. But so are a growing number of scientists, government officials, and conservationists, who are calling for a fishing moratorium in this area until the health of fish stocks can be assessed.

A key concern is the so-called 1.1 million-square-mile “donut hole” in the central Arctic Ocean that does not fall under any country’s jurisdiction. Until a few years ago, this part of the Arctic Ocean was locked in ice for virtually 12 months a year. But now climate change is melting that barrier and making it seasonably accessible. In 2007, when sea ice cover in the Arctic was at a record low, 40 percent of the “donut hole” was open.

What fish live in that area now and in what numbers, and which species might move in as sea ice continues to melt, are not well understood. But a number of factors — including melting sea ice, warmer and fresher water, and shifting gyres and currents — appear to be improving productivity in many areas, including those that used to be covered in ice for most of the year.

No one believes that the central Arctic Ocean is ripe for fishing just yet. But because there are snow crab on the Chukchi Shelf and fish such as Arctic cod
Concern is growing about the exploitation of this untapped resource in the heart of the Arctic.
along the shallower perimeters of the region, it wouldn’t require a long migration for these fish to move in and out of the “donut hole.” The small Arctic cod is not what commercial fishermen are after. But because they are found across the Arctic region and play a key role in supporting larger fish populations, they will play a pivotal role in the expansion of Arctic fisheries.

Concern about the exploitation of this untapped resource in the heart of the Arctic is growing.

“I was there in 1992 when the last trawler brought in the last catch of cod off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador,” says Trevor Taylor, a one-time fishing vessel captain and former Minister of Fisheries for the Canadian province. “It’s been 20 years since the cod fishery was shut down, and although there are hopeful signs of a recovery, it’s going to be a long time, if ever, before it’s even half recovered. The same thing is going to happen in the Arctic if we open the door to commercial fishing without understanding the presence and abundance, the structure and movements, and the role these fish play in the broader ecosystem of the central Arctic Ocean.”

Taylor is now policy director for Oceans North Canada, which advocates science-based policies on fishing, shipping, and energy development in the Arctic Ocean that are consistent with indigenous land claims and traditional practices. The group is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts in the United States, which worked to persuade more than 2,000 scientists from 67 countries to sign a letter at the IPY meeting in April calling for the development of an international fisheries agreement that would protect the waters of the central Arctic Ocean. Other Arctic waters within 200 miles of coastlines are governed by various nations as part of their Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, rights.

As indifferent as governments often are in responding to such petitions, some Arctic states are paying attention to the issue of fishing in the polar regions. The U.S. closed its Arctic waters to fishing in 2009 to allow scientists to assess
Large parts of the Arctic are fertile fishing grounds that have already been overexploited.
the changes that are taking place in the marine ecosystem. While the new regulations close all U.S. waters north of Alaska’s Bering Strait, fishing in the Bering and Chukchi seas continues.

Canada is considering doing the same thing on its side of the Beaufort Sea in advance of energy developments that could have an impact on a fishery that is only beginning to be inventoried.

Marine conservationists see this as a good start because management of the world’s fish stocks has generally been disastrous. The United Nations estimates suggest that 28 percent of global fisheries are overexploited, 3 percent are depleted, 52 percent are fully exploited, and just 1 percent is recovering.

Large parts of the Arctic, particularly those on the periphery of the Arctic Ocean, are fertile fishing grounds that have already been overexploited. From the 1960s to the 1980s, fishing trawlers scooped up — often illegally — redfish and round-nosed grenadier in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, to the point that stocks there are now almost completely depleted. Both Barents Sea cod and Bering Sea pollock have also suffered from extreme harvesting pressures.

The situation could actually be far worse than has been estimated. A team of University of British Columbia researchers reported last year that fisheries catches in the Arctic totaled 950,000 tons from 1950 to 2006. That’s
Oceanographers are seeing a shift on the sea bottom from an Artic to a sub-Arctic ecosystem.
almost 75 times the amount reported by fishermen to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) during this period.

Oceanographer Eddy Carmack has conducted 90 field investigations in rivers, lakes, and seas and published over 170 scientific articles during his long career. Having first traveled to the Arctic in 1969, the year of Woodstock, he is only half joking when he says that “things are a-changing” in the region. While he doesn’t doubt that some fish populations are expanding, he says the issue of harvesting is not as simple as one might imagine.

“You can’t expect to exploit one species in the Arctic when you really don’t have any idea what role that species plays in a larger ecosystem that is undergoing dramatic change that we really don’t understand very well,” he said.

MORE FROM YALE e360

The Unfulfilled Promise of the
World’s Marine Protected Areas

The Unfulfilled Promise of the World’s Marine Protected Areas
Biologists and conservationists maintain that establishing marine reserves — areas where fishing is off-limits or severely restricted — offers the best hope for recovery for our overstressed oceans. So why is such a small area of the world's oceans protected?
READ MORE
Carmack and other oceanographers have been studying life on the sea bottom and the changes that are occurring as a result of early ice melt. In the Bering Sea, they’re already seeing a shift from an Arctic ecosystem to one that is sub-Arctic. Everything, from amphipods to gray whales, is moving northward.

Henry Huntington, science director for Pew’s Arctic Program, says the time has come for Arctic states to act fast, especially in areas such as the central Arctic that are currently unprotected. “For the central Arctic Ocean, the rapid retreat of summer sea ice means that the international waters are accessible to fishing vessels for the first time in recorded history,” Huntington said. “Everywhere else in the world, fisheries have rapidly expanded into accessible waters. Rather than see a repeat of the sad history of fisheries in most of the world — when we were left to wonder where the fish went and start some science and management later — we have a chance to get the science and management in place before fishing begins.”

POSTED ON 10 May 2012 IN Biodiversity Energy Oceans Oceans Pollution & Health Antarctica and the Arctic North America 

Comments have been closed on this feature.
ed struzikABOUT THE AUTHOR
Canadian author and photographer Ed Struzik has been writing on the Arctic for three decades. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about a potential uranium mining boom in Nunavut and about a controversial plan to kill wolves in Alberta.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Scientists Focus on Polar Waters
As Threat of Acidification Grows

A sophisticated and challenging experiment in Antarctica is the latest effort to study ocean acidification in the polar regions, where frigid waters are expected to feel most acutely the ecological impacts of acidic conditions not seen in millions of years.
READ MORE

Northern Mystery: Why Are
Birds of the Arctic in Decline?

With some species of Arctic birds experiencing steep drops in population and their prey also undergoing marked shifts, scientists are working to understand what role climate change is playing in these unfolding ecological transformations.
READ MORE

No Refuge: Tons of Trash Covers
The Remote Shores of Alaska

A marine biologist traveled to southwestern Alaska in search of ocean trash that had washed up along a magnificent coast rich in fish, birds, and other wildlife. He and his colleagues found plenty of trash – as much as a ton of garbage per mile on some beaches.
READ MORE

China’s New Arctic Presence
Signals Future Development

China’s recent admission to the Arctic Council under observer status reflects a new reality: the world’s economic powers now regard development of natural resources and commerce in an increasingly ice-free Arctic as a top priority.
READ MORE

How Mussel Farming Could
Help to Clean Fouled Waters

Along the shores of New York Harbor, scientists are investigating whether this ubiquitous bivalve can be grown in urban areas as a way of cleansing coastal waters of sewage, fertilizers, and other pollutants.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


Unsustainable Seafood: A New
Crackdown on Illegal Fishing

by richard conniff
A recent study shows that a surprisingly large amount of the seafood sold in U.S. markets is caught illegally. In a series of actions over the last few months, governments and international regulators have started taking aim at stopping this illicit trade in contraband fish.
READ MORE

A Public Relations Drive to
Stop Illegal Rhino Horn Trade

by mike ives
Conservation groups are mounting campaigns to persuade Vietnamese consumers that buying rhino horn is decidedly uncool. But such efforts are likely to succeed only as part of a broader initiative to crack down on an illicit trade that is decimating African rhino populations.
READ MORE

On Fracking Front, A Push
To Reduce Leaks of Methane

by roger real drouin
Scientists, engineers, and government regulators are increasingly turning their attention to solving one of the chief environmental problems associated with fracking for natural gas and oil – significant leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
READ MORE

Scientists Focus on Polar Waters
As Threat of Acidification Grows

by jo chandler
A sophisticated and challenging experiment in Antarctica is the latest effort to study ocean acidification in the polar regions, where frigid waters are expected to feel most acutely the ecological impacts of acidic conditions not seen in millions of years.
READ MORE

On Ravaged Tar Sands Lands,
Big Challenges for Reclamation

by ed struzik
The mining of Canada’s tar sands has destroyed large areas of sensitive wetlands in Alberta. Oil sands companies have vowed to reclaim this land, but little restoration has occurred so far and many scientists say it is virtually impossible to rebuild these complex ecosystems.
READ MORE

A New Leaf in the Rainforest:
Longtime Villain Vows Reform

by rhett butler
Few companies have done as much damage to the world’s tropical forests as Asia Pulp & Paper. But under intense pressure from its customers and conservation groups, APP has embarked on a series of changes that could significantly reduce deforestation in Indonesia and serve as a model for forestry reform.
READ MORE

In a Host of Small Sources,
Scientists See Energy Windfall

by cheryl katz
The emerging field of “energy scavenging” is drawing on a wide array of untapped energy sources­ — including radio waves, vibrations created by moving objects, and waste heat from computers or car exhaust systems — to generate electricity and boost efficiency.
READ MORE

Life on Mekong Faces Threats
As Major Dams Begin to Rise

by joshua zaffos
With a massive dam under construction in Laos and other dams on the way, the Mekong River is facing a wave of hydroelectric projects that could profoundly alter the river’s ecology and disrupt the food supplies of millions of people in Southeast Asia.
READ MORE

As Fracking Booms, Growing
Concerns About Wastewater

by roger real drouin
With hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas continuing to proliferate across the U.S., scientists and environmental activists are raising questions about whether millions of gallons of contaminated drilling fluids could be threatening water supplies and human health.
READ MORE

In Developing World, A Push to
Bring E-Waste Out of Shadows

by mike ives
For decades, hazardous electronic waste from around the world has been processed in unsafe backyard recycling operations in Asia and Africa. Now, a small but growing movement is seeking to provide these informal collectors with incentives to sell e-waste to advanced recycling facilities.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT

Twitter: YaleE360
e360 on Facebook
Donate to e360
View mobile site
Bookmark
Share e360
Subscribe to our newsletter
Subscribe to our feed:
rss


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

e360 video contest
Yale Environment 360 is sponsoring a contest to honor the best environmental videos.
Find more contest information.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

 

OF INTEREST



Yale