Aquaculture — what is commonly referred to as domestic fish farming — is a booming business these days. Still, it hasn’t lessened the warnings from scientists that we may be rapidly over-fishing the world’s wild fish stocks.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the world’s appetite for seafood has been increasing in recent years, encouraged by better technology and larger commercial fishing fleets. In 2014 commercial fleets recorded capturing 93.4 million tons of seafood, more than double what fisheries reported a mere four decades ago.
But commercial fishing is also receiving a boost from climate change, which has allowed fleets to access waters in Arctic and Antarctic regions that were once considered inaccessible under the regions’ thick ice, which is now melting.
That’s alarmed scientists, many of whom have been calling for a moratorium on Arctic fishing in recent years. In 2012, more than 2,000 scientists wrote to the leaders of Arctic countries and urged them to craft an agreement to prevent the Arctic waters from being over-fished. They called for a global agreement that would include guidelines “based on sound scientific and precautionary principles,” that would start “with a catch level of zero as a reflection of the state of understanding of the fisheries ecology of the region.”
The first comprehensive Arctic fishing ban
In October last year, with the Oslo Accord in place to govern fishing in the Atlantic high seas, nine scientists renewed the call again, this time urging global leaders to sign an agreement temporarily banning Arctic fishing.
But the scientists weren’t just calling for a moratorium on fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean. They wanted data, lots of data that would inform governments, fisheries and other stakeholders about the health and resources of the area that for centuries had remained a “terra incognita” for commercial fisheries.
And most importantly, they wanted that information to take precedence over commercial fishing schedules.
Questions still abound about what is in the Arctic Ocean, and how much of its fish stocks would be safe to harvest, reports Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
“We simply don’t have that information,” remarked Nadia Bouffard, who serves as the department’s director general as well as the head of the Canadian delegation that helped secure the Arctic fishing ban. “We did pose that question to our scientists. They reported to us is that there is no fish-specific information available for the high seas” she told National Geographic.
So in November 2017 ten new signatories joined the agreement, cementing the first broad-based effort to slow commercial fishing in the Arctic. The agreement was given conditional approval by nine countries and the 28-members of the European Union. The United States, Canada, China and Japan, all large players in the global commercial fishing industry, endorsed the concept.
Under the agreement there will be no commercial fishing in the 1.1 square mile/2.8 kilometer zone at the center of the Arctic Ocean for 16 years. The zone, which lies between Russia, Greenland, the U.S. and Canada, is not governed by international law. According to the agreement, the ban will automatically renew for another five years unless one of the signatories objects.
The agreement, which has not been formally signed, is in the final stages of preparation, which includes translating it in to each of the members’ states native languages, and securing the final ‘go-ahead’ from each government.
Better ice breakers, better access to Arctic waters
But while the new agreement promotes more environmental research in the area, it also may increase access for commercial Arctic fishing when the ban ends in 2034.
In order for scientists to study the area, nations and research teams will need to invest in better ice-breaking vessels. At the present, the U.S. only has two ice breakers that can plow through the Arctic’s thick crusts of ice and even those vessels, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papal told Congress in 2011, were badly in need of replacement. He repeated his call for more funding in subsequent years, pointing out that the U.S. Coast Guard budget was woefully under-financed for the task, especially if it wanted to lead research teams into Arctic regions.
In February 2017 the U.S. signed a $20 million contract to explore possible designs for new ice breakers. The study is the first step to determining what — and how much money — the Coast Guard would need if it were to go shopping for a state-of-the-art vessel. The cost of a new ice breaker can run upwards of a $1 billion.
But the U.S. Coast Guard will also be up against another challenge: China. Since 2015 the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Navy has been steadily increasing its fleet of ice breakers, readying for the task of navigating the Arctic’s formidable waters. Since China’s fishing fleets also have expressed interest in fishing opportunities in the region, the new fleet of ice breakers would likely serve double-duty in future years.
Arctic fishing or Arctic oil?
Of course, Arctic fishing is a relatively small interest for China when compared to its present focus in the region, which involves tapping into the Russian Arctic waters for oil. For the last few years, the Russian and Chinese companies have been working side-by-side to expand Russia’s access to Arctic oil in a region known as the Kara Sea, which sits just northwest of the zone that would be placed off-limits. Expanding China’s ice breaking capabilities means more accessibility for a technology it’s already beginning to capitalize on. It may also benefit Russia, which is quickly depleting its onshore reserves.
Canada could also have an interest in expanding its oil reserves, given its waning success in the oil sands market and its struggle to develop pipelines across Canadian and U.S. regions.
But for now, scientists are calling the international agreement a win-win for the environment: a ban against drilling in the vast Arctic Ocean, and the potential for unfettered research in one of the world’s last primal regions. As researchers have already found, studying the world’s smallest ocean may unlock vast secrets, including how to better manage the effects of climate change.