Archive for March, 2013

Fishing the Arctic

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

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.

Lawren Harris painted Baffin Island around 1931. This is a summer impression of the  north end of the island, the fifth largest in the world (artcountrycanada.com)

Lawren Harris painted Baffin Island around 1931. This is a summer impression of the north end of the island, the fifth largest in the world (artcountrycanada.com)

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.

 Russian trawlers at Murmansk, the main Russian port on the Barents Sea (barentsobserver.com).

Russian trawlers at Murmansk, the main Russian port on the Barents Sea (barentsobserver.com).

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.

Greenland Halibut, or turbot, is a bottom dwelling cold water species that will shift further north as sea temperatures warm (sirena.dk)

Greenland Halibut, or turbot, is a bottom dwelling cold water species that will shift further north as sea temperatures warm (sirena.dk)

Greenland Halibut grow slowly but live long in cold water (marlin.ac.uk)

Greenland Halibut grow slowly but live long in cold water (marlin.ac.uk)

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.

Gill-netters are more selective than trawlers, and catch larger (and many fewer fish (from Anna Olafsdottir's Powerpoint at scibd.com)

Gill-netters are more selective than trawlers, and catch larger (and many fewer fish (from Anna Olafsdottir’s Powerpoint at scibd.com)

Trawlers catch 3-4 million fish and 5-6 thousand tons of them annually, much more than do the gill-netters (from Anna Olafsdottir's Powerpoint (scribd.com)

Trawlers catch 3-4 million fish and 5-6 thousand tons of them annually, much more than do the gill-netters (from Anna Olafsdottir’s Powerpoint (scribd.com)

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.

 Collateral damage: Greenland Sharks are the most northern of sharks, grow to about 6 meters long, are considered 'near threatened' on IUCN's Red List - and are worrisome bycatch of the Greenland Halibut fishery (biologybiozine.com)

Collateral damage: Greenland Sharks are the most northern of sharks, grow to about 6 meters long, are considered ‘near threatened’ on IUCN’s Red List – and are worrisome bycatch of the Greenland Halibut fishery (biologybiozine.com)

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.

Gagged

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

Censorship is a seductive tool for those in power. Unwanted evidence can be not just ignored, but even eliminated from the discussion.

Currently we are seeing too many successful efforts at higher government levels in both the US and Canada to limit and censor discussion of climate change.

In the US, apart from the refusal by the Republican Party in Congress to even address issues of climate change, the censorship has been at the state level. For instance last July the Virginia General Assembly agreed to the removal of all references to sea level rise and climate change from a commissioned study on coastal Virginia. About the same time, the North Carolina legislature insisted that a bill related to coastal development regulations be based only on historical records, rejecting any reference to predictions of sea level rise. And then in Texas state legislators made it illegal for state planners and zoning officials even to mention climate change or rising sea levels.

A recent report on the impact of rising sea levels in Galveston Bay estuary on the coast of Texas was censored, removing reference to rising sea levels. (rawstory.com)

A recent report on the impact of rising sea levels in Galveston Bay estuary on the coast of Texas was censored, removing reference to rising sea levels. (rawstory.com)

In Canada, it is actually worse. When the Conservative Harper Government came to power in 2008 they began to muzzle their own scientists. Scientists could publish their research, but they could not talk to the media about it. This censorship has grown to include discussion of Arctic climate change, polar bear protection, tar sands damage to the environment, and even reasons for the decline in sockeye salmon on the BC coast.

Canadian government scientists protested  government actions in Ottawa in summer 2012 (therecord.com)

Canadian government scientists protested government actions in Ottawa in summer 2012 (therecord.com)

Last summer, 2000 Canadian government scientists actually held a protest in Ottawa, lamenting ‘the death of evidence’ and surprising everyone since scientists are not renowned as activists. Theirs was a response not only to muzzling, but also to the extraordinary attack by the Harper government on its own federally-funded labs involved in environmental research: the closing of the world famous Experimental Lakes Area as well as the Polar Environmental and Atmospheric Research Lab are breath-taking examples of government cynicism. The Harper Government would like to see its support of the tar sands, its development of pipelines, its plans for Arctic development, and its management of fisheries all remain unexamined and uncriticized, free from the inquiring research of scientists or the glare of media interest.

Closing the Experimental Lakes Area in Canada is an absurd political decision by the Harper government. (wildernesscommittee.org)

Closing the Experimental Lakes Area in Canada is an absurd political decision by the Harper government. (wildernesscommittee.org)

So is closing the Polar Environmental and Atmospheric Research Lab at Eureka, Nunavut, at 80 degrees latitude (pearl.candac..ca)

So is closing the Polar Environmental and Atmospheric Research Lab at Eureka, Nunavut, at 80 degrees latitude (pearl.candac..ca)

And now, most recently, US and Canadian scientists working on a joint US-Canada Arctic research project were required to sign sweeping confidentiality agreements – an arrangement rejected by at least some of the US scientists.

The muzzling of scientists, the unfunding of inconvenient research, the censoring of commissioned reports, the passage of laws restricting even the use of the appropriate words – altogether, this is lousy news. Not surprisingly, criticism and ridicule in the national and international media have been ineffective.

Of course this a serious abuse of power, and such disdain for evidence erodes our democracies. Given what’s at stake, it is also very dangerous.

Famous writers have written seriously scary books about this sort of thing.