Resources & Climate
Commentary

Eyes on Yet Another Prize in the Arctic Ocean: Fisheries at the Top of the World

in Program

For thousands of years it has been a desolate land of extremes ringing the world’s fourth largest ocean – bitterly cold and dark for much of the year, populated primarily by fish and wildlife, with native hunters just about the only humans around. But today the far northern Arctic reaches of Europe, Russia, the United States and Canada are attracting attention as never before.

Until recently, the only non-natives to visit the unspoiled Arctic were explorers, Cold War troops and scientific adventurers. Now the Arctic is absorbing a wave of energy company explorers eager to deploy new undersea drilling technologies to tap into vast oil and natural gas deposits thought to be among the largest on the planet.

At the same time, warming temperatures over the past decade have accelerated the melting of sea ice, unlocking the fabled Northwest Passage and other Arctic sea routes for the first time in modern history. This game-changing development has the potential to transform the global shipping industry by slashing distances and costs for ocean-borne cargo moving from Europe to Asia.

Lost amidst these sea changes has been the emergence of another potential source of new economic activity in the region – commercial fishing.

Beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zones extending off the northern coastlines of the five Arctic nations (Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the U.S.) lies a “donut hole”– a massive, ungoverned maritime no-man’s land that sits at the heart of the Arctic north, beyond international boundaries. It has been covered by ice for centuries.

Now that warming trends are reducing sea ice coverage to unprecedented levels, the region is theoretically accessible by boat in warmer months. In September 2007, for instance, a record 40 percent of central Arctic Ocean waters in the donut hole stayed ice-free.

The region’s newfound accessibility raises the prospect of commercial fishing in these waters, with potentially dangerous implications for the region’s delicate ecological balance if the practice is unregulated.

The local fish populations’ potential inability to withstand commercial exploitation has raised red flags from the international scientific community. The concern is not unwarranted. During the late 20th century a similar region of ungoverned international maritime space became ice-free in the Bering Sea, leading to such a rapid depletion of local pollack populations that a 1994 treaty was signed to impose more sustainable management policies to prevent the fish stocks’ collapse. 

In U.S. Arctic territorial waters off the Alaskan coast, research has revealed most fish stocks in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas are not large enough to sustain commercial exploitation. For local marine species numerous enough to support commercial fishing exploitation (snow crab, Arctic cod, saffron cod), American scientists have said more data must be collected to implement an ecosystem-based approach to sustainable fisheries management and set appropriate catch limits for these species.

However, highlighting the sensitivity of the region’s maritime ecosystems, it is likely that fishing Arctic cod and saffron cod will remain banned in U.S. Arctic waters because both species serve a key role in the local food chain, constituting a vital food supply for larger marine predators and birds.

While the U.S. has the enforcement capacity to help ensure these quotas are observed in its territorial waters, the same regulatory infrastructure does not exist in the Arctic’s international waters beyond the reach of exclusive economic zones. Further complicating the future of commercial fishing in the High Arctic is confusion over which nation controls what areas.

Perhaps the only thing that seems certain is that these waters will stay increasingly ice-free in the years and decades to come. The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center says the 2013 maximum extent for sea ice coverage ranks as the sixth lowest in satellite records. The 10 lowest maximums in ice coverage in the satellite record occurred in the last 10 years (2004-2013). According to several recent studies, climate model projections indicate that this trend will continue, potentially leading to an ice-free Arctic Ocean in summers in about the year 2035.

In response, the global scientific community is urging caution and patience in the region’s newly accessible fishing grounds. Upwards of 2,000 scientists from more than 65 countries recently authored an open letter highlighting the urgent need for an international pact to protect the High Arctic from unsustainable rates of exploitation, to help avoid a repeat of the Bering Sea debacle.

In a position consistent with U.S. policy in Alaskan territorial waters, scientists have essentially suggested a moratorium on new, large-scale commercial fishing until further biological data can be collected on newly accessible fish stocks to gauge their health and potential to withstand both commercial harvesting and rising ocean temperatures. At the same time, the rights of local fisherman in Arctic would be protected under such a moratorium to ensure continuation of their traditional economic livelihoods and guarantee access to an important dietary staple for the region’s indigenous populations.

Taking the time to let science determine how much fish can be taken from the Arctic without endangering future catches is the only sensible course. Letting fishing fleets destroy fish populations today is shortsighted and could destroy the potential of the Arctic to provide sustainable fish harvests deep into the 21st century.

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