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The Future of Fishing in the Central Arctic

By Edward Struzik

As Arctic sea ice continues to retreat, the world is no longer looking solely at the oil and gas that may lie in the region. Increasingly, it’s the future of fisheries that is taking center stage in the geopolitical discussions that come with planning for the future Arctic.

This was made evident on January 15 and 16, 2015, when 40 Arctic experts from the United States, Canada, Russia, China, Iceland, Denmark, and Greenland travelled to Tongji University in Shanghai to attend the first “Roundtable on Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Issues.”

The aim of the meeting was to assess how precautionary approaches can be applied in the Central Arctic Ocean prior to any commercial fishing activity taking place.

There are currently no rules to stop a fleet from fishing in this 2.8 million square kilometre region. Up until now, this has not been an issue. Fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean has been impossible because the region has been almost completely covered by thick, multi-year ice. But the Arctic has been warming twice as fast as any other place in the world. In 2007 and 2012, when sea ice retreated to record lows, approximately 40 percent of the Central Arctic Ocean was ice-free in the late summer months. Given the pace of Arctic warming, most scientists believe that the Arctic Ocean will be seasonally ice-free by 2040, and possibly sooner.

While none of the experts at the roundtable in Shanghai disputed the wisdom of pursuing a precautionary approach with respect to fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, one senior government bureaucrat wondered aloud why there was a sense of urgency about unregulated harvesting when no one has any idea whether there are fish there, or whether there will be fish in the future. It would be difficult, the official noted, to convince the political decision-makers he advises back home to take urgent action on a hypothetical situation that may not materialize.

David Benton, a commissioner on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, interjected with a story that suggested it was better to act now before it is too late.

In the 1980s, he pointed out, most people didn’t know or believe that there was a commercially viable fish population in the Central Bering Sea. At the time, Benton was a member of a committee that managed Pollock fishing off the coast of Alaska. Through industry contacts, he had heard rumours that foreign fleets were fishing for Pollock outside the exclusive economic zones.

When Alaska fishermen wouldn’t accept official assurances that this was not the case, they found a bush pilot who was daring enough to fly them out late in the short ice-free season so that they could see for themselves what was going on out there. Once the plane came down through the clouds they spotted several foreign ships fishing just a few miles outside of the exclusive economic zone.           

The video the fishermen produced resulted in a hastily negotiated agreement with Russia in 1993, which was signed by China, Japan, South Korea and Poland. As fast as the agreement was negotiated, it came too late. The Pollock fishery in these waters had collapsed by then, and it has not recovered since.

Benton’s words of warning were echoed by Vyacheslav Zilanov, professor at Murmansk State Technical University. He described past problems in Russia when fishing fleets from other countries overfished high seas areas in the Bering and Barents Sea where no management rules were in place and where adequate scientific information was lacking. Both the marine environment and Russian fishermen suffered as a consequence.

Leading the charge in Shanghai was David Balton, the U.S.’s deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries. He made it clear that pursuing an international framework for Arctic fisheries conservation would be a priority when the U.S. assumes chairmanship of the Arctic Council in April.

No one in Shanghai suggested that the Central Arctic Ocean is ripe for mackerel, or for large stocks of Arctic cod and capelin just yet. But the future may be more fish-friendly than most people think. The fact that scientists have been tracking beluga whales, seals and polar bears within the Central Arctic Ocean in recent years suggests that this migration of fish is already happening now to some extent. Where there are polar bears, there are seals, who prey on Artic cod and capelin.

While a regional fisheries management organization could be one way of proceeding, most delegates in Shanghai felt it premature to do so until it is determined if there are fish there and whether there will be fish in the future as the region becomes increasingly ice-free.

The best place to start while negotiations are underway, according to Dr. Zhao Long (Shanghai Institutes for International Studies), is to begin with the science that is required to develop future scenarios about areas, dates, species, and fishing techniques for which new fishing opportunities are likely to arise and potential impacts for non-target species.

China could play a key role in the fate of the Central Arctic Ocean. Chinese researchers at the meeting noted that it has a huge internal demand for fish products and has recently expanded its fishing fleet to operate efficiently in distant waters. Recently, China was granted observer status at the Arctic Council

While the Chinese government has not yet developed a policy on this emerging issue, the interest shown from seven universities in China at the meeting may be an indication that we will soon learn if the country agrees with the cooperative approach outlined by Arctic countries.

The China Ocean News, which is sponsored by the State Oceanic Administration, reported that precautionary action is needed as soon as possible and China stands ready to participate constructively as part of the international community interested in the ecology and management of this high seas area.

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Edward Struzik is the author of Future Arctic, Field Notes From A World on the Edge, published by Island Press, Washington D.C. (2015) He was the rapporteur for the recent Arctic roundtable meeting in Shanghai.

[Photo courtesy of ken yee and danna]

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