The Arctic Ocean ought to be pristine and well protected from overfishing. Too much ice cover until very recently and the wisdom derived from decades of bad experience elsewhere ought to keep the ocean, both in the coastal EEZs and in the huge international waters in its center, safe from the disasters of overfishing that have occurred everywhere else. We are certainly smart enough to learn by our mistakes.
The question is not whether there should be any fishing at all – such environmental idealism now has little influence in our real world – but that the fishing needs to be sustainable. Vast potential fisheries will open up as the Arctic ice thins and recedes with the warming climate, but how will the usual overfishing be prevented?
The Inuvialuit of Canada’s Western Arctic have dealt with this question by getting the Federal Government in Ottawa to declare the Beaufort Sea off limits to commercial fisheries, at least for now. Meanwhile more than 2000 scientists, mostly from the Arctic coastal countries, have signed an open letter calling for zero commercial fishing until the changing ecology of the sea is understood.
Is some optimism therefore justified? The pressures of commercial fishing suggest it isn’t.
To start with, Arctic fish populations have not been in any pristine condition for quite a long time, for catch data from 1950 to 2008 were radically under-reported. About 75 times more fish were caught than the various nations reported – a remarkable total of around 950,000 tons. The main offender was the Soviet Union/Russia, reporting a commercial catch of 12,700 tons instead of the 770,000 tons actually caught. The US and Canada acknowledged subsistence fishing by their coastal native communities, but each reported catches of zero instead of a more accurate 90,000 tons.
And of course the pressure to fish continues to build. Canada’s first Arctic commercial fishery has recently developed in the coastal waters around Baffin Island – in the jurisdiction of Nunavut. The fishery is for northern populations of Greenland Halibut, also known as turbot.
The Nunavut communities need jobs, and the fish appear to be plentiful. More vessels, both inshore gill-netters and deeper-water trawlers, are entering the fishery. Quotas are rising and the fishery is expanding. There are calls for a deep-water port in northern Baffin Island for the trawlers to off-load so they don’t have to go to southern Greenland to do so. It all looks like a success story.
But it isn’t. In fact it has all the features of the boom phase of a boom-and-bust fishery, the sort we have endured over and over again around the world over the past century. It is all too familiar and will, as always, be difficult to resolve.
For instance, we don’t know at what age or size the fish become sexually mature, and we don’t know how fast – or slowly – they grow, or how long they live. How can we manage the fishery in such ignorance? We can’t.
The conflict between gill-netters and trawlers is heating up, with the gill-netters upset by the growing intrusion of the trawlers. And they should be. Fewer than 15% of caught fish should be less than 45cm long – the major regulation in place to try to protect the fishery – and most trawlers far exceed this. Because trawlers take smaller fish than the more selective gill-netters, they catch many more fish to meet their quota.
Regulation of the fishery is a responsibility of the DFO of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. This is not an incompetent organization, but the ruling Harper government has so reduced the funding of DFO that no-one is available anymore to do the work. As a result, existing regulations are not enforced, and new ones are not developed.
Solutions exist – support the gill-netters, restrict the trawlers, gather fisheries data, limit the expansion of the fishing fleet, support the coastal communities, and at least remember the precautionary principle. None of this is impossible, but will take community leadership and involvement.
So what do we have? A number of nations are about to compete aggressively for opening resources in the Arctic Ocean; the marine ecosystem is changing in ways we don’t yet understand; coastal fisheries are expanding yet lack meaningful regulations; coastal communities face uncertain futures and are in need of access to commercial fishing; international agreements on how to deal with any such problems don’t exist; and the unreported fishing of the recent past has had an unknown impact on current fish populations.
What we have at the moment is familiar chaos. We know that the Arctic is not a productive, resilient marine ecosystem, but we are treating it as if it is.
Certainly we are capable of learning from our many past mistakes. It still is not too late to ensure our Arctic exploitation is sustainable, and not just business-as-usual.
We can do better this time.