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International Accord Bans Fishing in Central Arctic Ocean, Spurs Science

A landmark 16-year prohibition on commercial fishing in the once ice-covered central Arctic Ocean will allow nations to conduct research on marine life in a little-explored region that is rapidly changing as climate change accelerates.

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker makes its way through the frozen waters of the Arctic Ocean.Lev Fedoseyev\TASS via Getty Images

Officials from 10 nations last week finalized a historic accord in Washington, D.C., that will prohibit commercial fishing in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean for at least 16 years, jump-starting research in a remote region that, until recently, was largely inaccessible to scientists.

“The central Arctic Ocean is now the largest marine area to be proactively placed off-limits to fishing,” said Steve Ganey, who oversees Arctic marine projects at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “There are currently no regulatory measures on the books for fisheries in this high seas area.”

The agreement has been in the works since 2015, when the five countries with Arctic coastlines – Canada, the United States, Denmark, Russia and Norway – signed a non-binding declaration in Oslo that they would keep their fishing fleets out of 1.1 million square miles (2.8 million square km) of international waters in the region until science-based assessments of fish stocks and their distribution had been completed. Regulations must then be implemented before any future commercial fishery will be allowed to operate. Negotiations were later expanded to include China, the European Union, Japan, Iceland and Korea – which hold considerable interest in fishing in the central Arctic Ocean.

Such an agreement has not been needed until now as the high seas of the central Arctic were historically blanketed by sea ice. But climate change has opened up as much as 40 percent of the region during the summer months, and it’s expected that within 10–15 years the central Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in summer. Because it is located in the high seas beyond any nation’s jurisdiction, the central Arctic Ocean is subject to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the U.N. Fish Stock Agreement, which means that all countries have some claim to fish there, though the majority do not have the economic means to do so.

The dark blue area of the Arctic Ocean represents international waters that have been put off-limits to commercial fishing for up to 16 years. (Marine Policy)

That’s why a binding declaration putting the zone off-limits to commercial fishing was needed, according to more than 2,000 polar scientists who had urged adoption of such a measure. Without regulation, there’s concern that growing global demand would jeopardize fish populations in central Arctic waters, which have never faced pressure from commercial fishing.

Following the voluntary Oslo Declaration, efforts began to negotiate an agreement with non-Arctic nations with large fishing fleets. China, for instance, hauls in more fish than any other country – around 15.4 million tons a year globally. And China’s fishing vessels are traveling increasingly greater distances – a 2012 European Parliament report found China aimed to grow its distant-water fishing fleet while most other nations were reducing their fishing fleets due to concerns over overfishing. According to members of the U.S. team working on the agreement, preventing unregulated commercial harvests before they start makes this agreement “historic.”

One of the key components of the agreement reached on November 30 is the establishment of a multinational scientific effort to gather more data about the region. Until now, all research in the central Arctic Ocean has been carried out by a variety of committees, institutes and universities. In a study published in the journal Marine Policy in September, researchers assessed prevailing knowledge of the region and identified the greatest information gaps.

The scientists found that despite unprecedented climate changes in the region, and a history of marine resource exploitation outpacing the development of ecosystem management efforts, very little research on harvestable fish species has been conducted in the central Arctic Ocean.

Some 250 species are known to occur in Arctic waters, but virtually nothing is known about fish population sizes, movements, stock dynamics or interactions between different species, their habitat and prey. For example, there is a lack of data about popular commercial harvest species such as Arctic cod in those waters, according to Ganey. “Scientists are also saying shrimp and halibut are moving north as seawater warms,” he said. “There are some major species being fished in the Atlantic and some of those could extend their range.” Indeed, many researchers theorize that subarctic fish populations will expand into the high Arctic.

This lack of information “was not surprising considering the region was almost completely ice-covered year-round, blocking or hampering access and making fishery research a low or nonexistent priority in competition for limited research funding,” according to the study.

As sea ice continues to retreat, research may become easier to conduct.

“I don’t expect a full-scale fisheries research program to start with, but instead a step-by-step approach to increasing our research capacity and our understanding,” said Henry Huntington, a polar scientist and one of the coauthors of the study.

Doing so may well take at least the 16 years the commercial fishing ban lasts, he added, since no baseline information exists to evaluate how fish stocks are changing in a rapidly altering Arctic. “We’ll need to take the time to develop such a record so we can see what is changing, and how, and make sure we’re not basing decisions on data that have become obsolete.”

To start, researchers should monitor basic productivity, building off existing research that has been done on phytoplankton blooms. If biological activity appears to be increasing that could support fish stocks large enough to sustain a fishery, then countries will need to look more carefully at the fish. “That second step is likely to cost more and take more effort, especially if we move into full-scale fisheries management,” said Huntington.

Thus far, signatories to the agreement haven’t made any specific financial commitment to expanding research in the central Arctic Ocean, but will likely incorporate fisheries-related research into other active projects. China, Japan and South Korea already maintain ongoing research programs that include parts of the central Arctic Ocean.

“China has been very helpful in negotiations about what a science and research program would look like moving forward,” said Ganey. “They’re stepping up as a major actor on the international stage.”

After the initial 16 years have passed, the agreement will be renewed in 2033, and then in five-year increments after that, unless one of the signatories objects or if fishing quotas and regulations have been established during that timeframe.

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