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Receding ice levels in the Arctic Ocean could potentially open up an area measuring 2.3 million unregulated km2 to commercial fishing. Before fishing begins in earnest, representatives from the five Arctic coastal states want to make sure there are clear guidelines in place to prevent overfishing.
Their findings formed the background for a three-day summit in Nuuk attended by representatives from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US.
After initially failing to reach a consensus, the meeting concluded Monday with a decision to establish a temporary ban on fishing in the Arctic. The moratorium will remain in place until appropriate regulatory system is enacted.
In addition to allowing negotiators the chance to draw up legal guidelines, the move will also give scientists the time they need to determine whether fishing will become a viable commercial activity in the region.
Even though scientific data points to warming Arctic waters and melting ice, it is not certain the fish will follow. Current studies indicate this has not been the case so far. For some species, such as haddock and cod, the Arctic Ocean, even if it warms, is too deep to serve as a suitable habitat. Other species, such as mackerel and herring, could thrive in the Arctic, but only if the species of plankton they feed on are able to migrate further north.
“There is no research out there that can tell us how many fish are in the Arctic Ocean,” said Scott Highleyman, the head of the international Arctic programme for the Pew Environmental Institute, a conservationist NGO. “If you begin fishing a species and you don’t know how widespread it is, it could have disastrous consequences.”
According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which came into effect in 1994, states have the right to exploit natural resources located within 200 nautical miles of their coasts. Anything located further out is in international waters, and beyond the control of individual states.
While Unclos sets general guidelines, states can agree amongst themselves to a different set of rules, and it was precisely that the Arctic coastal sates were seeking to accomplish during their talks in Nuuk.
Heading into the Nuuk talks, the US in particular was lobbying for a ban. It was concerned that without an agreement to jointly manage fisheries, the region would see an increase in fishing vessels from especially Asian countries sailing to the international waters of the Arctic.
The US has yet to sign Unclos, but in practice it follows its guidelines. In 2009 the US Congress passed a fisheries management plan that closed the waters north of Alaska until scientific studies could prove that fishing there was sustainable.
“The steps taken by the US in its territory was necessary, since the Arctic Ocean is warming faster than science can keep up with,” Highleyman said.
Currently there are no studies that give a picture of fish populations in the Arctic. And, according to Highleyman, casting nets overboard before such studies have been conducted is less than desirable.
“Each time we have done that in the past it has had catastrophic consequences.”
In an open letter sent to the governments of the Arctic states in 2012, some 2000 scientists from 67 countries expressed their concern about possible threats to the Arctic environment due to overfishing. They warned that overfishing would impact not just other animals living in the region, including seals, whales, polar bear, but also the indigenous groups that rely on those animals.
“Until recently, the region has been covered with sea ice throughout the year, creating a physical barrier to fisheries,” the scientists wrote.
“In recent summers, however, the loss of permanent sea ice has left open water in as much as 40 percent of these international waters. This region is no more remote from major fishing ports and fishing fleets than many areas of the world to which pelagic fleets travel already. A commercial fishery in the central Arctic Ocean is now possible and feasible.”
Perhaps proving their point, in 2012, scientists reported that cod had been sighted as far north as 82 degrees latitude, in shallow water north of Russia’s Franz Josef Land. It was the farthest north the species had ever been observed.
Alf Håkon Hoel, the head of the Tromsø-based Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, explained that the cod had probably been seeking new territory as the cod stocks in the adjoining Barents Sea grew to record sizes.