Cod rules the fisheries in the Barents Sea, an area of ocean that lies above northern Europe and Russia. The sea itself is considered to be relatively unpolluted and it is one of the most productive oceans in the world. But in recent years, the local fisheries have increasingly chased the cod to higher latitudes, into newly ice-free waters near Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the northern Barents Sea.
“The fishing fleet simply follows the fish, and it was in this area the fish were during the autumn,” said Webjørn Barstad, CEO of Havfisk ASA, a fishing company with 10 trawlers and one of three companies that dominate the fishing industry in the Norwegian portion of the Barents Sea.
But in a recent report, Greenpeace International cautioned against fishing in the northern Barents Sea, warning that the the bottom-trawling methods used by industrial fishing fleets were damaging the seafloor, raising the threat of habitat degradation and putting the ecosystem at risk.
“According to our data the areas around Svalbard have historically not been trawled much, especially east of the archipelago, among other things because they have been protected by the ice,” said Truls Gulowsen, director of Greenpeace Norway. “We recommend that the fisheries do not go into these new and vulnerable areas, but that cod is harvested where it has been in the past.”
The environmental group analyzed ship movements for three years, up to September 2015, and found that a number of vessels were operating in waters that were once ice-covered. The winter ice-edge in the eastern Barents Sea retreated 240km (150 miles) between 1979 and 2010, according to the report.
Precaution: Changes Ahead
Some of the ocean in the northern Barents Sea is protected. Beginning in 1973, parts of the sea were gradually set aside due to their ecological importance and to protect endangered species.
For example, bands of protected waters exist around Svalbard’s islands. About 85 percent of the territorial waters, stretching 22 km (12 nautical miles) offshore, are off-limits to fishing, construction and other traffic. Similarly, the ocean in the northeastern Barents-Kara Sea is listed as an Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Area (EBSA) and is protected by international law.
Cod landings have been growing in recent years. Norwegian vessels caught 18,235 tons of cod in the Fisheries Protection Zone – a zone of 370km (200 nautical miles) around Svalbard – in 2007, rising to 75,866 tons in 2014 (but declining to about 60,0000 tons in 2015), as cod stocks grew and moved north.
Most of the vessels operating in the Barents Sea use bottom trawls, a net pulled along the seabed. While it is an effective way to catch fish, it damages the seafloor. When the net sweeps across the bottom of the sea it catches fish other than cod and species that live on the seabed.
“In general, the negative consequences [are] more severe in areas that have been little trawled in the past compared to areas that are already heavily trawled,” said Gulowsen. He adds that this is a good reason not to expose new areas for trawling.
“Whether we have sufficient knowledge for industrial fishing depends on the individual point of view,” said Barstad. “I think we have, however, conservation interests may assess it differently. One has to consider the positive impacts of commercial activities against the potential negative impacts on the environment.” Havfisk is developing improved gear to minimize impacts on the seabed, including new kinds of trawl doors, he said.
Greenpeace would like to see the Norwegian government create a Marine Protected Area in the northern Barents Sea and around Svalbard. Gulowsen said that it might be possible to combine increased protection of the areas with sustainable fishing, but that this is difficult as long as the dominant fishing method in this area is bottom trawling. “To be precautionary is a good principle, especially for ecosystems that are changing rapidly such as those in the Arctic now in the time of climate change.”
Aron B. Løsnes is a freelance journalist and photographer from Norway who specializes in the Arctic. In 2013 he graduated from the University in Tromso with a degree in Northern Studies. He frequently explores the nature in northern Norway, accompanied by his camera.
Top image: Cod fishing around Svalbard has grown over the past decade. (Flickr/Joachim S. Müller)