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By Alex Kirby
The countries that ring the Arctic Ocean will soon face a dilemma: can they risk commercial fishing fleets shooting their nets in those soon-to-be-ice-free seas?
Before long—quite possibly before mid-century—the Arctic Ocean will be free of ice during part of each summer, scientists are now saying confidently. For better or worse that will open up huge opportunities for shipping and hydrocarbon exploitation. And for the first time in recorded history it will allow the fishing boats access to whatever has lived undisturbed until now beneath the ice.
A three-day meeting began yesterday in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, where U.S. officials are hoping to persuade the other nations which border the Arctic Ocean to introduce a moratorium on high seas fishing there (the other members of the group are Canada, Russia and Norway).
David Benton, of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC), said the Americans were proposing an agreement “that would close the international waters of the Arctic Ocean to commercial fishing until there is a good scientific foundation on which to base management of any potential fishing.”
All coastal countries control fisheries within 200 miles of their own coastlines. The high seas beyond that limit belong to no country and can be protected only by international agreement.
Once the five Arctic nations have agreed a fishing moratorium, Benton said, they would then approach other countries with major commercial fishing fleets, such as China, Japan and Korea, to negotiate full protection for the central Arctic Ocean.
The Arctic was experiencing a fairly rapid rate of change, said Benton, as the permanent ice melted. “That’s potentially causing large changes in the ecosystem, but we don’t understand what’s going on up there. If we want to do things right, this is the approach we should be taking.”
In 2009, the U.S. adopted its own Arctic Fishery Management Plan, closing American waters north of Alaska to commercial fishing until scientific research proves that the fishery is sustainable. Scott Highleyman, director of the international Arctic program for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said that had been a precaution that took account of the way global warming was changing the Arctic ecosystem faster than science could keep up with it.
He told the Los Angeles Times: “There are no stock surveys or scientific assessments for fish there. You don’t want to fish a place where you don’t know the fish population dynamics. Any time we’ve done that, it led to catastrophic overfishing.” One example, Highleyman said, is the New England Atlantic cod fishery, which was shut down in the 1980s due to overfishing, costing 50,000 jobs.
An open letter to the Arctic governments, signed by 2,000 scientists from around the world, says that if the Arctic Ocean is overfished it will damage species that live there, including seals, whales and polar bears, and the people who use them for food.
“Until recently, the region has been covered with sea ice throughout the year, creating a physical barrier to the fisheries,” the scientists wrote. “A commercial fishery in the central Arctic Ocean is now possible and feasible.”