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Indigenous Fisheries in a Changing Arctic

If Arctic states and big fishing nations agreed to permanently close the Arctic high seas to all commercial fishing, it could have a wide range of benefits. Arctic coastal fisheries, indigenous peoples and the ecosystem as a whole might thrive under such an arrangement, writes Rashid Sumaila.

Written by Rashid Sumaila Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Changes are coming fast to the Arctic. The ice is melting, the water is warming and ocean acidification is happening more rapidly in this region than anywhere else on the planet. With these substantial biophysical changes under way, the Arctic is also becoming potentially more accessible to commercial fishing vessels eager to go after the catch.

Given the rapid nature of these changes, we must find a way to protect Arctic marine species so that these ecosystems continue to thrive and provide food and income to indigenous populations living along Arctic coasts. The pertinent question to ask is: Should Arctic nations take the lead and be the first to close the Arctic high seas to all commercial fishing?

In July 2015, officials from the five Arctic coastal nations (Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States) signed an agreement saying that they would not let their vessels fish in the Central Arctic Ocean until there is sufficient scientific evidence to show that it can be done sustainably. These international waters encompass an area as big as the Mediterranean Sea and lie beyond these nations’ 370km (200-mile) exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This is an important and necessary first step, but to ensure broad and lasting protection for this region, the signed pact must become a permanent binding international agreement joined by other major fishing entities, such as the European Union, China, Iceland, Japan and South Korea.

Research indicates that within 15 years chemical changes to Arctic waters will affect the ability of animals to build and maintain their shells. This will send ripples through the marine ecosystem because other fish, further along the food web, depend on these shelled organisms for food. We are already seeing elevated acidity in the Beaufort Sea – on Canada’s northwest coast – and in Alaska’s coastal waters, which could directly or indirectly affect one half of the total U.S. commercial fish catch. The implication here is that there will be fewer fish available for Arctic indigenous peoples to harvest, and that these effects may ‘trickle up’ to whale and seal populations.

Fishing usually takes place in the high seas and EEZs of maritime countries. In a recent publication, my collaborators and I argue that closing the global high seas to fishing would likely be economically and socially sensible. We find that most fished species straddle the high seas and the EEZs of the Global Ocean. Establishing a fishing ban in the high seas would transform these areas into “fish banks,” where fish can hide, grow and spawn to replenish the waters of the adjacent EEZs. Another key finding of the paper is that inequality in the distribution of revenues from fish stocks in the high seas could be reduced by up to 50 percent with a ban on fishing.

The ongoing and intensifying changes pose economic, social, cultural and environmental challenges for the Arctic’s indigenous peoples. Not only will there be fewer nearshore fish to catch, but the melting of the ice will open up the Arctic Ocean and make it attractive to commercial fishing companies, putting added pressure on what may become a scarce resource.

Unchecked, this new interest could lead to a double whammy for Arctic indigenous peoples. First, they are likely to lose catches and revenues, as well as face increasing costs and falling net benefits from their own fishing activities within coastal waters. Second, they may face unwelcome competition from large-scale fishing vessels owned by companies with deep pockets that, until recently, have not fished in the area.

The eight countries that form the Arctic Council must push for an international agreement to ban commercial fishing permanently in the Arctic high seas. The creation of a large restoration area would protect the biodiversity of the Arctic Ocean and make the ecosystem more resilient, as well as boost indigenous economic security by enriching the fishing grounds with species that swim in from the closed area.

Top image: International waters in the Arctic Ocean (Pew Charitable Trusts)

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