- In July, all five countries bordering the Arctic Ocean signed an agreement that prohibits commercial fishing in the international waters of the central Arctic Ocean.
- Until recently, this region remained covered by ice all year round, but the retreat of sea ice due to global warming has prompted predictions that it may become ice-free during the summers, opening it to fishing and other forms of exploitation.
- A lack of scientific information about fish stocks in the region and how they may be responding to the rapidly changing ecosystem prompted the countries to sign the declaration.
On July 16, all five countries bordering the Arctic Ocean — the United States, Norway, Canada, Denmark, and Russia — signed an agreement that prohibits commercial fishing in the international waters of the central Arctic Ocean.
This 2.8 million square kilometer high seas region surrounds the North Pole, lies beyond the five coastal countries’ exclusive economic zones, and is not owned by any country.
The Declaration Concerning the Prevention of Unregulated High Seas Fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean, also known as the Arctic Fisheries Declaration, was signed in Oslo. It restricts commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean until there is an increased science-based understanding of the region’s ecosystem, and appropriate international standards of fishing are established.
The agreement and its measures are not legally binding on the five Arctic countries that signed it, according to a post on the University of Calgary Faculty of Law blog. But it declares the intent of the countries to conform to the measures in the declaration.
Given how the Arctic ecosystem is changing rapidly, experts are welcoming this agreement.
“The Arctic Fisheries Declaration is a good first step because it establishes the policy outcome the five coastal countries would like to achieve: a delay in the start of commercial fisheries until adequate science shows that such fishing could be sustainable for the Arctic ecosystem,” Scott Highleyman, director of the International Arctic Program at the U.S. based research and advocacy group The Pew Charitable Trusts, told mongabay.com.
Until recently, the central Arctic region remained covered by ice all year round, with the extent of sea ice growing during the Arctic winters and retreating during the summers. But as atmospheric temperatures have increased over the past decades due to global warming, the sea ice has been retreating faster and farther than before, leaving more of the ocean ice-free for longer periods of time.
In September 2012, NASA reported that the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice had shrunk to 1.32 million square miles, a record-setting end-of-summer low. And 2007 through 2014 have had the eight smallest end-of-summer sea-ice extents on record. This trend could bring ice-free summers to the Arctic in the coming decades, scientists have warned, opening the waters to commercial fishing and other human activities.
However, fishing is unlikely to start anytime soon, even without the new agreement.
“My guess is that a commercial fishery in the area is a low probability over the next two to four decades,” Oran Young, an Arctic expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told mongabay.com. “There are no fisheries in the area now and most likely will not be for some time.”
This is because the central Arctic Ocean is deep, has long polar nights, and still has ice cover for several months of the year, Clive Tesar, head of communications for the Global Arctic Program of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) based in Ottawa, Canada, told mongabay.com.
“Having said that, it is uncertain exactly how Arctic ecosystems will respond to ongoing climate change. This area could potentially host a fishery someday, and it’s important to ensure that rules are in place before trawlers arrive,” he added.
The Arctic Fisheries Declaration could act as a precautionary measure, Arctic experts believe. The agreement could trigger discussions about how fisheries in the region could be managed if and when fish stocks are deemed sufficient for commercial fishing.
At the moment, however, the region remains largely understudied and unexplored.
“The central Arctic Ocean is a difficult place to conduct research,” Highleyman said. “To date, there have been no scientific stock assessments about fishery populations and trends.”
For example, Highleyman noted, scientists know that Arctic cod (Arctogadus glacialis) — important prey for seals, whales, and seabirds — live in the central Arctic Ocean. But they know little about how many cod there are or whether the fish are increasing or decreasing in response to climate change and other factors. “Basic fisheries research on species like Arctic cod is essential for understanding the ecosystem dynamics of the central Arctic Ocean,” he said.
While studies on the status of Arctic Ocean fish are lacking, experts predict that as the sea ice melts and waters warm the kinds and quantities of fish in the region could change. For instance, a 2013 study showed that various salmon species are appearing in parts of the Arctic that were previously not known to harbor salmon.
However, most ecosystem changes within the Arctic Ocean remain poorly studied at best, and a lack of ecological baseline data makes it very difficult to predict what may happen in the future, Highleyman said.
Despite this lack of scientific information about fish stocks in the region, countries are increasingly tantalized by the prospect of commercial fishing as the central Arctic Ocean heads toward ice-free summers.
This includes not only nations bordering or near the Arctic, but also countries far from the North Pole, such as China, Korea, Japan, and India.
China, in particular, has shown repeated interest in Arctic resources. This has raised concern among the five Arctic coastal countries, especially since China has been known to aggressively catch more fish in foreign waters than it reports, according to media reports.
The most important action to be taken by big fishing nations such as China would be to sign this commercial fishing moratorium, Tesar said in an email. “This would demonstrate their respect for the Arctic environment, and for the Arctic peoples who rely on the [Arctic] Ocean for their food and well-being.”
Highleyman believes that China will ultimately welcome the chance to be part of an agreement that he said is cooperative, science-based, and precautionary. “But the Chinese government has not publically announced a policy on this issue and so we must wait and see,” he said.
The onset of ice-free waters in the central Arctic Ocean for prolonged periods will also open shipping routes that were previously impenetrable, bringing its own set of problems for the Arctic environment, Young said.
For instance, shipping can increase the production of soot or black carbon in the region, according to Tesar. Increased dust and soot settling down on glaciers and ice can darken their color, causing them to absorb more of the sun’s heat than they normally would. And this can speed up the melting of ice.
“Although shipping is currently thought to contribute only five percent of the black carbon load in the Arctic, this could increase to 20 percent by 2050 according to some projections of future shipping,” Tesar said.
Another risk from increased shipping is the potential release of oil into the Arctic environment through spills or illegal discharge, he added.
“Three-quarters of the fuel used in Arctic shipping is heavy fuel oil,” he said. “It is impossible to clean up in ice covered conditions especially given the lack of nearby response resources and infrastructure. It has a devastating effect on the simpler Arctic marine food webs.”
Since the central Arctic Ocean lies outside any country’s jurisdiction, opening it up to shipping and fishing raises a number of questions regarding how different human activities in the region — such as energy development, shipping, fishing, and bioprospecting — will be governed.
According to Young, these include identifying who should govern these activities, and if there need to be legally binding agreements to regulate the activities or if more informal arrangements are sufficient.
Given how difficult it is to predict future trends in the Arctic marine ecosystem, the new agreement on commercial fishing is a prudent move, Highleyman said.
“For an area like the central Arctic Ocean, the common-sense approach is to maintain the status quo — no commercial fishing — until much more is known about both the current ecosystem and how it is restructuring in response to warming,” he said.
- K.M. Dunmall, J.D. Reist, E.C. Carmack, J.A. Babaluk, M.P. Heide-Jørgensen, and M.F. Docker. (2013.) Pacific Salmon in the Arctic: Harbingers of Change. In: Responses of Arctic Marine Ecosystems to Climate Change. Alaska Sea Grant, University of Alaska Fairbanks. doi:10.4027/ramecc.2013.07