The receding sea ice of the Arctic Ocean opens new possibilities for exploitation of natural resources. Not only fossil fuels but also fisheries stands very high up on the agenda of Arctic nations. However, no proper data on fish stocks exist for the central Arctic Ocean. Arctic nations now have agreed to halt all fisheries themselves until more and better data will be available. They are also discuss now an international ban on fisheries in the central Arctic Ocean.

The Bering Sea used to be an excellent fisheries area, first for pollock, now for invertebrates like king crabs or scallops. However, to maximize profits, many fishing companies sent in badly equipped or aged ships into the area which led to numerous accidents and even losses of life. Picture: W. Good
The Bering Sea used to be an excellent fisheries area, first for pollock, now for invertebrates like king crabs or scallops. However, to maximize profits, many fishing companies sent in badly equipped or aged ships into the area which led to numerous accidents and even losses of life. Picture: W. Good

In the late 1980s, hundreds of massive factory trawlers from Japan, the Soviet Union, and other nations swarmed into international waters in the Bering Sea between Russia and the United States, netting millions of tons of pollock. But the lucrative, essentially unregulated fishery quickly came to an ignominious end: In the early 1990s, pollock populations crashed and have not recovered.

Now, researchers and policymakers are working to prevent a repeat of that disaster farther north, in the central Arctic Ocean (CAO), which is increasingly accessible as sea ice melts. End of April, delegates from six of the eight Arctic nations as well as several countries with major fishing industries will meet in Washington, D.C., to discuss a proposal to bar commercial fishing in the CAO until scientists learn more about little-studied stocks and nations agree on catch rules. Fishing shouldn't begin in international waters “until there is adequate scientific information on which to manage such fisheries properly,” argues Ambassador David Bolton of the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., a major backer of the initiative. Thick sea ice and doubts about the extent of Arctic fish stocks have kept the CAO's international waters free of commercial fishing. But the area of late winter sea ice has plummeted by 9%, or 1.5 million square kilometers, over the past 3 decades, and the resulting flood of additional sunlight has helped increase primary production by phytoplankton—the base of the marine food web—by 30% since 1998.

Fishing in the Arctic remained largely a coastal affair. Nutrient rich waters along the coast made it simple to fish with small trawlers. However, as the demand on fish increased globally, new areas had to be exploited and the open oceans moved into the focus. Picture: NOFIMA
Fishing in the Arctic remained largely a coastal affair. Nutrient rich waters along the coast made it simple to fish with small trawlers. However, as the demand on fish increased globally, new areas had to be exploited and the open oceans moved into the focus. Picture: NOFIMA

Recognizing that such changes might eventually fuel an attractive polar fishery, in 2012 some 2000 scientists called for a fishing moratorium in the CAO. Already, the United States and Canada have basically placed a moratorium on fishing in the exclusive economic zones of their Arctic shores. But those zones extend just 370 km of the coast of each Arctic nation, leaving much of the CAO within a so-called doughnut hole of unprotected international waters. So the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (representing Greenland) have also pledged to bar their own vessels from fishing in the area until nations agree to sustainably manage CAO fisheries.

Now, the Arctic nations want other countries—particularly Asian nations such as China, Japan, and South Korea that support globe-circling fishing fleets—to join this “precautionary approach.” U.S. officials have proposed a binding pact that would put the CAO off-limits to all fishing until researchers learn enough to inform regulations. There is, for example, “a dearth of basic information as to the species (fish and shellfish in particular) found in” the region, an international research team concluded last year. One priority, scientists say, is learning more about Arctic krill, crustaceans that are a key food for fish—and could be one of the first targets of commercial fishers.

Several Arctic nations have declared themselves for a fisheries ban in their exclusive economic zones. Among them are the USA along the Alaskan coast. Coast guard vessels are supposed to enforce the moratorium.
Several Arctic nations have declared themselves for a fisheries ban in their exclusive economic zones. Among them are the USA along the Alaskan coast. Coast guard vessels are supposed to enforce the moratorium.

To fill some of those data gaps, Arctic nations are meeting with other countries in September in Tromsø, Norway, to shape a science plan. In the meantime, Bolton says next week's talks in Washington represent “the early days” of an effort to put Arctic fishing on a firmer footing. Nations that don't have a direct stake in Arctic territory have said little publicly about the U.S. proposal, but the participation of Asian nations in initial discussions on the issue held last December is viewed as a sign of interest. And many participants vividly remember the Bering Sea pollock disaster. “It's that very experience,” Bolton says, “that is driving us in the central Arctic.”

Source: Eli Kintisch, Science Magazine