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Temporary ban on fishing reflects how fragile Arctic ecosystem is

Time to get cracking: a Canadian research vessel in the Arctic. John F. Williams/Office of Naval Research, CC BY-SA

Temporary ban on fishing reflects how fragile Arctic ecosystem is

Time to get cracking: a Canadian research vessel in the Arctic. John F. Williams/Office of Naval Research, CC BY-SA

As climate change melts the ice in the Arctic, areas that had previously been closed in the Arctic Ocean are becoming available to fishing. Five countries bordering the Arctic – Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway and Denmark – recently agreed to a temporary fishing ban in the region.

The decision shows how a warming Arctic raises a number of unanswered economic and scientific issues as fishing expands, questions I’ve studied as a researcher in fisheries economics.

Many scientists applaud the temporary ban decision because it signals the willingness of political leaders to be proactive rather than reactive in ensuring that we have the science in place to support sustainable use of the resources.

What is more, the agreement is a beautiful application of the precautionary approach whereby prudent action is being taken early enough in the face of uncertainty and potentially serious risk.

Ultimately, what’s needed is a fisheries management regime that includes closing of a substantial part of the Arctic ocean to commercial fishing. In the meantime, this temporal decision will buy time to allow scientific information to be gathered before the inevitable expansion of commercial scale fishing to the area becomes a reality.

So what are the risks of commercial fishing in the Arctic and what kind of information will scientists be gathering?

Impact on the locals

First off, this agreement will help avoid the usual “gold rush” that follows “newly” found natural resources and the mess it usually leaves behind.

In the 1990s, a number of deep-sea fish species, such as orange roughy, were discovered in different parts of the global ocean, from Namibia to South Africa and Australia. A big rush of commercial fishing followed before we understood that these fishes grow very slowly and live several decades, which resulted in their depletion in many parts of the world.

duncan c/flickr, CC BY-NC

In the Arctic Ocean, there are already a number of species caught, including the Arctic char, sardine cisco, capelin, Atlantic herring, northern prawn and Greenland halibut. Most of the current catch is landed by small-scale fisheries and is used mainly for local consumption.

The indigenous peoples of the Arctic region depend heavily on traditional foods harvested from the local environment, making them vulnerable to the effects of climate change and other environmental stressors acting in the Arctic environment.

Coastal indigenous peoples who harvest large quantities of marine species consume some of the harvest and trade some with inland groups in exchange for other indigenous foods such as plants, berries and terrestrial mammals.

Fish are generally consumed in the summer and marine mammals are consumed in the winter, whereas seabirds are often consumed in the spring. As a result, socially and culturally, these fisheries are of immense importance even if the actual quantity of fish caught is not large in a commercial sense.

Chemical changes to the ocean

Climate science and marine ecosystem research inform us that marine fish species are already being impacted by climate change.

They will continue to come under increasing pressure over the course of the 21st century as global climate change, ocean acidification and deoxygenation (the loss of oxygen in oceans from climate change) combine with other stresses on the ocean to change the primary productivity, growth and distribution of fish populations.

Climate change can affect wildlife directly through ocean acidification or indirectly by affecting prey. ashokbo/flickr, CC BY-NC

Shellfish species, marine mammals and seabirds commonly harvested in the Arctic region for consumption are likely to be affected by climate change and ocean acidification, either by harming the life functions of the organisms or indirectly through their effects on major prey in the ecosystem.

Deoxygenation is already resulting in a change of where some fish species spend their lives: along the Japanese continental slope, decreases in mid-depth oxygen content over the last 60 years have resulted in Pacific cod shifting their distributions to shallower depths.

Going forward, some key scientific questions that are yet to be comprehensively addressed include:

  • As CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions increase, how could the marine ecosystems and the living marine resources of the Arctic be affected?

  • How resilient will the ecosystems and the living resources in them be as the Arctic Ocean becomes warmer? If sea ice melts faster and ocean acidification accelerates, will the the ocean become deoxygenated and sea levels rise?

  • How could these biophysical and ecological impacts of climate change affect peoples of the Arctic through economic social and cultural channels?

  • How could the population of marine mammals be affected, and how might this affect the thriving whale-watching industry in the region?

Fisheries and protected areas

Changing marine ecosystem conditions are already redistributing fish species and accelerating the invasion in the Arctic Ocean of species from lower latitudes. This means further scientific exploration of the consequences of changing currents and future management arrangements is needed – including the economic and social effects on the peoples and economies of the Arctic countries.

These key scientific questions relate to how climate change is likely to affect the governance of what would be international fisheries – that is, fisheries targeting fish stocks that migrate between the exclusive economic zones, or EEZs, of two or more countries.

What rules apply when trawlers head to the Arctic? Eoin Gardiner/flickr, CC BY

For example, Pacific salmon spend their lives in US and Canadian waters, and highly migratory stocks such as tuna straddle the waters of countries and the high seas. Some stocks spend all their lives in the high seas.

These fish stocks are usually managed jointly by the countries sharing the fish – for example, the US and Canada jointly manage Pacific salmon and halibut. But the increased likelihood of abrupt and unpredictable changes in the productive potential and migratory behavior of exploited fish stocks under climate change may threaten current joint management arrangements.

Another open question is what happens when the temporary ban ends. A permanent ban on commercial fishing and the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs) would buffer the Arctic ecosystem from some of the uncertainty in the future.

Like a diversified portfolio of stocks, MPAs help to protect us from errors and mistakes in the science, policy design and implementation of fisheries regulation. In the event of such mistakes, the fish protected in the MPA could help replenish the fished area in the same way that conservative investments in a portfolio can help a portfolio recover faster after a stock market meltdown.

We need to understand what the impact of the Arctic’s melting are for both research and policy development. We already know the Arctic is changing rapidly; better knowledge of those changes will help inform effective multinational fisheries governance.

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