At GLACIER, nations urge caution in opening the Arctic to fishing

The borders of the Arctic Ocean, according to the CIA The World Factbook[5] (blue area), and as defined by the IHO (black outline - excluding marginal waterbodies). Image: Wikimedia Commons.
The borders of the Arctic Ocean, according to the CIA The World Factbook[5] (blue area), and as defined by the IHO (black outline – excluding marginal waterbodies). Image: Wikimedia Commons.
As the Arctic opens, several countries are eyeing what may be a virgin commercial fishery in the central Arctic Ocean. How to regulate those new potential fishing grounds was on the table for discussion at the State Department’s GLACIER conference in Anchorage last week. Several nations urged caution and the need for more science before opening the fishery.

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There are five nations whose borders surround the Arctic Ocean — and each has their respective fishing jurisdictions offshore. But none yet extend into the central Arctic Ocean, or what’s called “the high Arctic.”

David Balton is the State Department’s deputy secretary for oceans and fisheries:

“No commercial fishing has ever taken place in this area and that is because, of course, at least until recently, it has been ice-covered year round. But that, as most of you know, is changing.”

Although it’s not likely the Arctic will be ice-free anytime soon, the five countries bordering the Arctic Ocean — Norway, Russia, Canada, the U.S. and Denmark — signed a non-binding agreement in Oslo this summer to abstain from unregulated fishing in that part of the ocean, for now.

At the GLACIER conference, delegates from several northern nations discussed how exactly the high Arctic should be opened for commercial fishing.

But first, Balton reminded the crowd about a cautionary tale. In the mid-1980s a large, unregulated pollock fishery opened in the so-called “donut hole” of the Bering Sea.

“It was conducted by large trawl vessels from China, Japan, South Korea and Poland. The unregulated nature of that fishery caused alarm in first the Soviet Union — Russia — and, of course, the United States. And despite the efforts of those two countries to bring this fishery under control, the pollock fishery collapsed in 1992. No commercial fishery for pollock has existed in this high seas area since. This pollock stock has never recovered.”

Fisheries management expert Dr. Vyacheslav Silanov of Russia says the big takeaway from the depleted stocks in the Bering Sea donut hole and elsewhere is that it’s easier to prevent overfishing than to remediate it.

Through a translated powerpoint presentation, Dr. Silanov advocated for close collaboration between all countries with a stake in high Arctic fisheries, and pointed out that this kind of collaboration has happened, in the past, only after fish stocks had been harmed.

Jim Stotts of the Inuit Circumpolar Council said his group, too, has a vested stake in precautionary management.

“We Inuit have a strong interest in maintaining healthy fish stocks in Arctic waters. We are a coastal people. And we depend on the Arctic Ocean for fish, sea birds and marine mammals for continued nutritional and cultural survival.”

And in that vein, Ambassador Balton announced two initiatives on behalf of the U.S. last week:

“The United States intends to convene an international negotiation to start before the end of this year with the objective of developing such an international agreement. The negotiations will be freestanding in the sense that they will not be part of some existing regime such as the Arctic Council or any existing regional fishery management organization.”

Those negotiations are scheduled for early December in Washington, D.C.

Balton’s second announcement was the intent to make funding available for scientific research in the high Arctic.