Sea Ice Retreat Could Lead to Rapid Overfishing in the Arctic

A consortium of countries are meeting in Iceland, where they hope to strike a deal that protects the newly accessible ecosystem.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy on the Arctic Ocean (Reuters / NASA)

The Arctic Ocean has long been the least accessible of the world’s major oceans. But as climate change warms the Arctic twice as fast as anywhere else, the thick sea ice that once made it so forbidding is now beating a hasty retreat. Since 1979, when scientists began using satellites to track changes in the Arctic sea-ice expanse, its average summertime volume has dropped 75 percent from 4,000 cubic miles to 1,000 cubic miles. By September, the Arctic Ocean will have swapped nearly 4 million square miles of ice for open ocean.

This accelerated transformation has troubled scientists, conservationists and government officials who are anxious about the fate of the fish that may live in these waters—and for the entire ecosystem itself. At the center of the Arctic Ocean is a 1.1 million square-mile “donut hole,” surrounded by Canada, the Danish territory of Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States. The donut hole does not fall under any country’s jurisdiction, and it may well be the last unexploited fishery on Earth. According to international law, anyone could fish these newly opening high seas, if they desired, and thanks to the retreating ice, they may soon have their chance.

This week, delegations from the five Arctic coastal states and five of the world’s largest fishing jurisdictions are meeting in Reykjavík to hammer out a deal to prevent commercial fishing boats from casting their nets into the international waters of the Arctic until scientists complete a full assessment of its fish stocks.

(Ocean Conservancy)

“It’s my hope that we will actually bring this home, find some compromises on the key issues and produce an agreement that everyone can go ahead and sign,” says Ambassador David Balton, the deputy assistant secretary for Oceans and Fisheries at the U.S. Department of State, who is chairing the talks.

The agreement aims to avoid the tragedy that occurred in the Bering Sea in the 1980s. At the time, the U.S. and the Soviet Union fished for pollock within their respective waters. Almost no one believed there were fish—or foreign fleets—in the international waters between them, says David Benton, a retired fisheries manager from Alaska and a member of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

A pair of Alaskan fishermen who thought otherwise chartered an airplane to fly over the donut hole and spotted close to 100 working vessels. At its height, fishing fleets from Japan, China, Poland, South Korea and others were drawing more than a million of tons of pollock from the waters annually.

“It wasn’t illegal fishing because it was international waters,” says Benton, who is advising the U.S. delegation. But it was unregulated.

An international treaty was quickly negotiated, but it was too late. By the early 1990s, the pollock stock had collapsed. Twenty-five years later it has still not recovered.

Compared with the donut hole in the Bering Sea, which clocks in close to 50,000 square miles, the one in the Arctic Ocean is enormous.

“There has been a lot of discussion about shipping in the Arctic Ocean, but in my experience the first people into an ocean are the fishermen,” says Peter Harrison, an Arctic policy and fisheries expert at Queen’s University in Canada, and a former deputy minister of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Lately, as much as 42 percent of the central Arctic Ocean is open water during the summer months.

No commercial fleets are fishing the area yet. According to the limited data scientists do have on the Arctic high seas, fish densities are unlikely to grow large enough to merit commercial interest in the near future, raising concerns about damage from fishing vessels exploring the region in the absence of regulations. “This is the perfect time for these discussions. The entire exercise is a great example of the precautionary approach,” says Balton.

Nor does anyone know for sure what species they might target. But Arctic cod, a keystone species eaten by seabirds, fish, seals and other marine mammals, has commercial potential. The slender fatty fish is likely too small and boney for us to eat, but could be targeted by the growing aquaculture industry. Distant-water fishing fleets from Norway, Korea and elsewhere already capture large amounts of forage fish and krill in Antarctic waters to make fishmeal for shrimp farms and fertilizer.

“It wouldn’t take very many boats to wipe out fish populations before you knew what they were,” says Scott Highleyman, the vice president of conservation at the Ocean Conservancy and an NGO representative for the U.S. delegation.

With this in mind, more than 2,000 scientists from 67 countries signed an open letter in 2012, urging governments to develop an international fisheries agreement that would place international Arctic waters under protection. By mid-2015, the US, along with Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia, had all signed a non-binding agreement in Oslo to restrict their own vessels from fishing in the high seas area of the central Arctic Ocean until scientific data supports the decision to fish.

The Arctic Five quickly invited others to join the discussions. In December 2015, Japan, China, South Korea, the EU and Iceland met with the five Arctic coastal nations in Washington, D.C., to begin negotiating a new fishing agreement.

China catches more marine fish than any other country in the world and doesn’t want to be left behind in any decision-making process in the Arctic, Nengye Liu, a polar law expert at Adelaide University, in Australia, wrote in an email.

“For China, this agreement offers the possibility of playing a global role. Some of it is about being seen as a good global citizen,” says Harrison.

Late last year, there was cautious optimism among participants that an agreement would be reached in Tórshavn, the Faroe Islands, in December. The talks “turned a corner for the better,” says Balton. The draft text now calls for a legally binding agreement, championed by the U.S. and Canada in a joint statement last March. It would also create a research and monitoring program for the Arctic high seas.

But several sticking points remain. The parties continue to debate the meaning of exploratory fishing, such as when it can occur, under what circumstances and who can do it (commercial or scientific vessels). “If it is too easy to do exploratory fishing, it is easy to abuse,” says Njord Wegge, who studies international relations in the Arctic, at the University of Tromsø, in Norway.

The voting process is another stumbling block. Is a simple majority enough or should decisions be made by consensus? But the hard question, says Balton, is “when will we move to a full-fledged international fisheries agreement that is actually managing a commercial fishery? How do we make that transition? It turns out there are some fairly different views about that.”

“This could be revolutionary,” says Harrison. “It would be one of the few occasions where we’re trying to do something before it becomes a problem.”