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.

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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.
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