Posts Tagged ‘Arctic fisheries’

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.

The Open Arctic

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Everyone is preparing for an Arctic Ocean open for business at least through the summer months.

Seasonal shipping is increasing, and ports are growing, especially along the Russian coast.

The North Pole, April 2004: HMS Tireless, a nuclear sub, measured sea ice thickness of the melting ice cap (seaice.org.uk)

The Arctic rim countries – Canada, Norway, Denmark, Russia and the US – are under some pressure to agree to a moratorium on exploiting the Arctic fisheries at least until enough is known about the ecosystem to do so sustainably.

Beluga whales feed on a school of Arctic cod (the dark streak), a species of potential commercial value but about which we know very little (arkive.org)

The tension over who if anyone owns any of the international waters in the huge center of the Arctic continue to grow, with Russia planning to reopen long closed Soviet bases, Canada considering using drones to monitor the region, and the US getting increasingly nervous about not having a vote in the UN negotiations concerning international boundaries.

The international water of the Arctic Ocean (red lin e)(oceansnorth.org)

Meanwhile China and South Korea are building icebreakers and intend to be players in the search for Arctic fish and other resources.

And then there are the oil companies.

The huge BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 is largely forgotten. Canada, the US and Norway are all inviting oil companies to bid for licenses to explore for oil and natural gas along their Arctic coastlines from Alaska and the Beaufort Sea to the Barents Sea. After a relentless, seven year campaign, Shell begins to drill on the Alaskan North Slope this summer, with Greenpeace watching closely. All the companies are eager to drill in international waters when that becomes possible.

Canada opens the Beaufort Sea for bids for drilling licenses

They are preparing to work in the cold, in darkness, in sea ice a long way from any supportive infrastructure. Still they claim development can be done sustainably.

In fact, nine of the major oil companies, including Statoil, Total, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Shell, have launched a research program where they will assess how spills flow in the Arctic, how to track them remotely, and how to recovery spilled oil. They will do this with ‘controlled’ spills.

Missing from this initiative are the Russian companies, Gazprom and Rosneft. No one seems confident that they will comply with regulations that the others accept. The Gazprom rig that capsized off Sakhalin last December, killing 50, is not reassuring.

Actually, no company is ready for offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, for no proven method for clean-up there exists.

Resistance to drilling has failed. The US sees the Arctic resources as part of its route to energy independence. Norway needs to replace its lucrative but depleted offshore southern oil fields with new northern ones. Canada wants to sell its resources to anyone who will buy them. Russia is Russia.

We hoped the rules of the game might be different in the Arctic as it opens up, based on all that we have learned over the past few decades. In fact they look exactly like they always have: power wins; the idea of endless economic growth remains unchallenged; resources exist to be exploited; environmental concerns are recognized and then largely ignored.

As elsewhere in our modern world, our response has become not to stop it, but at best to try to make it less bad.

At the least, a vigilant and activist press is increasingly critical – reminding us of past initiatives and failures, of the importance of evidence and precaution, and of the fragility and vulnerability of our natural world.

Walruses meet to debate the future of the Arctic Ocean (washingtonpost.com)