By Ed Struzik
With fish beginning to migrate into the increasingly ice-free heart of the Arctic Ocean and commercial fleets eyeing one of the world's last unexploited fisheries, the need is growing for an international treaty to protect marine life in the central Arctic basin.
As the steady retreat of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean opens up vast areas of this long-frozen marine basin, a key resource issue is now emerging: the future of fisheries, especially in central Arctic waters.
The fact is that this area — covering approximately 1.1 million square miles in the heart of the Arctic Ocean — has never been fished, for the simple reason that it was covered in ice year-round. Now, as vast areas of the Arctic Ocean become ice-free in summer, scientists and policy makers are trying to answer some basic questions. What, if any, fish species have traditionally inhabited the central Arctic? What species are migrating into the region as sea ice disappears? And could the heart of the Arctic Ocean sustain a commercial fishery in the coming decades?
These issues were central to a discussion at a conference last month in Shanghai on the fisheries of the central Arctic Ocean. That the meeting was held in China, and not in an Arctic nation, is testament to the global interest in what may be one of the planet’s last unexploited fisheries.
David Balton, the U.S.’s deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries, said it was important to negotiate an agreement on fishing in the central Arctic Ocean, although some delegates questioned his sense of urgency.
The facts, however, appear to be piling up in Balton’s favor. Fisheries experts from Russia, Iceland, and Greenland pointed out at the Shanghai meeting that southern fish species such as bluefin tuna and mackerel are already moving north into their waters, in some cases displacing Artic cod and capelin, which appear to be migrating north into colder areas. With an exploratory quota of 100,000 tons of mackerel instituted in 2014, the government of Greenland now expects this species to become an important focus of its rapidly growing fishing industry.
Vyacheslav Zilanov, head of a commercial fisherman’s association in northern Russia, said similar fish migrations are occurring in the Barents Sea and other waters of Arctic Russia. He has little doubt that polar cod, capelin, and Greenland halibut may migrate into the central Arctic Ocean once the ice is gone. When that happens, he predicted, fishermen will follow.
No one believes that the central Arctic Ocean is ripe for fishing in the next several years. But because snow crab and Arctic cod exist along the shallower perimeters of the Arctic Basin — areas that have long been ice-free in summer — such highly valued species could eventually move in and out of the central Arctic basin. That scientists have recently been tracking beluga whales, seals, and polar bear within the heart of the Arctic Ocean suggests that this is already happening to some extent, since the seals and whales often follow fish.
In a paper published in 2013, biologist Karen Dunmall of the University of Manitoba and colleagues explained how shifting currents and receding ice are leading to long fish migrations. That occurred in 2012, when some Pacific salmon traversed the entire Arctic Ocean, finding their way in one case into the waters of Greenland and in greater numbers into the eastern Canadian Arctic for the first time.
Getting China involved in any Arctic fisheries agreement is a priority because the country has recently expanded its fishing fleet so that it can operate more effectively in distant waters. Some Chinese academics attending the Shanghai conference didn’t see an agreement coming anytime soon. But they envisioned a scenario in which the Chinese government sends scientists into the Arctic Ocean on a Chinese icebreaker to work with Americans, Canadians, Danes, Russians, and other experts.
Preliminary as these discussions are, it’s a breakthrough because the Arctic Council — the intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by Arctic governments and indigenous peoples — has shown scant interest in managing or seriously discussing the issue of fishing in the central Arctic Ocean. The little interest they did show fizzled when diplomatic relations with Russia — a key Arctic Council member — cooled as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. Even if the council were interested, Balton points out, it would be handcuffed by the fact that two of the permanent members are part of the European Union, and therefore restricted in their ability to negotiate international fisheries agreements. Balton envisions a hybrid agreement of some kind that would include Arctic countries as well as fishing countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, and Poland.
America’s leadership on this emerging issue got its start in 2007 when Congress passed — and President George W. Bush signed — a joint resolution on Arctic fisheries. The resolution provides that the U.S. should initiate international discussions on management of future Arctic fisheries. The Obama administration also has shown an ambitious pattern of thinking about the future of the Arctic. Obama moved last month to set aside more than 18,500 square miles in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as wilderness. The following day, the administration permanently removed 9.8 million acres of ecologically important Arctic marine waters from oil and gas leasing.
Together with the moratorium that was placed on commercial fishing in a 200,000 square-mile area off the coast of Alaska in 2010, it’s clear that Admiral Robert Papp Jr., the U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic, was not kidding when he recently promised to put the “put the Arctic Council on steroids” when the U.S. takes over chairmanship of the council in April.
“We’ll have an ambitious agenda when we take over the Arctic Council,” Balton told delegates in Shanghai. “Whether we can get it all done in two years remains to be seen.”