Opportunities for fisheries as the Arctic ice melts

by Thomas Jensen
EM6 19 FISH arctic fishery

International control is essential

Climate models predict that the Arctic could be ice-free during the summer months by the middle of the century, allowing access to previously unused fishing grounds. What sounds positive on the surface poses considerable risks to the fragile ecosystems of the Arctic region. Current international governance systems are not enough to counterbalance these developments and enable effective management of the Arctic fishery.

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 6/2020.

Individual readings might fluctuate but the trend is clear: there is alarming evidence of progressive climate change. In other words, global warming can’t simply be brushed aside as a hypothesis made by mad scientists. Temperature rises might vary in the various regions of our planet but experts agree that the Arctic, the 15 million square kilometres north of the Arctic Circle (66º 33’N), will be particularly affected.

The average winter temperature in the Arctic has risen by about 1.5 degrees since 2006. The polar ice cap is melting and nearly 60% of the ice cover disappeared in the last forty years. Where decades-old ice was once predominant, today’s ice is much younger and it is also becoming thinner and thinner. As a result, much more light can penetrate through the ice into the depths, causing changes in plankton development there. The duration of the annual ice cover in large parts of the Barents Sea has fallen by 50 to 150 days, depending on the region. If this development (which scientists call “sea opening up”) continues, Arctic waters will be largely ice-free in the summer months by the middle of this century. The primary production of planktonic algae, which form the basis of the marine food chains, is increasing, which in turn influences the trophic structures in the ocean and the composition of the biocoenoses, the biodiversity. These changes also affect fish stocks in the Arctic Ocean and its adjacent seas (AOAS) and thus the fisheries that operate there.

Like almost every change, climate change has both positive and negative effects. Some industries could benefit from the disappearance of the ice sheet as new business opportunities arise. The Northern Passage through the Arctic will shorten sea routes for shipping, oil, gas and mineral resources on the seabed will become accessible, and production from forestry and fishing is likely to increase. The Arctic region is of strategic interest to many countries in terms of natural resources and maritime transport and so there is a growing appetite for a share in the new possibilities. But fears about the future are also growing at the same rate. Already the announcement of exploratory drilling in the Arctic has alarmed environmental activists and triggered fierce protests.

Arctic fish species of little commercial interest

Fisheries could be among the possible “winners” of global climate change since subarctic boreal areas are home to some of the world’s most abundant fish stocks. If the Arctic ice recedes and primary production of pelagic microalgae becomes more significant in the currently benthic dominated Arctic food web then cod, capelin and herring stocks could increase. This is still speculation, because marine warming can also have negative consequences for fish and fisheries. For example, if it changes the course and the strength of marine currents, modifies the migrations and distribution limits of fish stocks, or if thermal stratifications of the water column lead to oxygen deficiency in the deep. Even small changes within the food chains can influence competition for food and this is then reflected in growth rates, mortality and spatial distribution of fish stocks.

Although surprisingly little is known about Arctic fauna and flora and their response to global warming it is a generally known fact that Arctic aquatic flora and fauna tend not to cope well with rapid environmental changes. Over millions of years they have been adapted to an environment characterised by low temperatures and small temperature fluctuations. With the exception of Polar cod most fish species live on the bottom and tend to be loyal to their native habitat, making them particularly vulnerable to climate change and fishing. Up to now, 633 fish species have been identified in the Arctic Ocean and adjacent seas, and only 58 of them are fished. Most of them live in subarctic boreal areas such as the Barents Sea, the Bering Sea or the waters off Greenland. This region is also home to 67 terrestrial mammal species and 35 marine mammal species, and 154 freshwater and 45 marine bird species breed in the Arctic. The total number of marine invertebrates such as sea urchins, bristle worms, bivalve molluscs and crustaceans is believed to be at least 5,000.

Boreal fish species advancing northwards

When the central Arctic Ocean was still covered with ice throughout the year there was virtually no fishing in this marine area. As a result of climate change, however, large parts of the area could at least temporarily become accessible for fishing in the foreseeable future. There is a consensus among scientists that climate change will lead to an increase in productivity in the Arctic and that the Arctic species community will “borealise” as temperature rises. This ultimately means that some fish species such as Polar cod (Boreogadus saida) and capelin (Mallotus villosus), navaga (Eleginus nawaga) and Arctic flounder (Liopsetta glacialis) will continue to spread in the area. Although Polar cod is of little commercial interest it plays a central role in the Arctic food chain due to its enormous biomass (the stock comprises several million tonnes). The same applies to capelin, whose stock fluctuates strongly and is extremely important as food for the Barents Sea cod. From an economic point of view it could be the Barents Sea cod that will benefit most from climate change in the region. The species is already advancing into Arctic waters, driven by warmer waters in the south of its original range. The cod fishery in the Barents Sea is increasingly shifting from the Norwegian-Russian coasts to Spitsbergen in the north and Novaya Zemlya in the east. According to scientific forecasts, potential catches of North Atlantic fish species are expected to increase by 20 to 30% by 2050.

Exaggerated optimism would be premature, however, as the scientists’ predictions still contain uncertainties. The expansion of cod stocks into the upper Arctic, for example, carries the risk that the traditional spawning grounds of the fish species will be lost, and the Arctic coasts hardly offer any adequate spawning grounds, especially as there may be a lack of plankton for the cod offspring to eat. It is currently difficult to predict for individual fish species whether they will be among the winners or losers of climate change. These include haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus), saithe (Pollachius virens) and deepwater redfish (Sebastes mentella and S. marinus), Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides), wolf fish (Anarhichas lupus, A. minor and A. denticulatus) and European plaice (Pleuronectes platessa). Herring could be among the winners, as Norwegian spring spawners have been advancing as far as Spitsbergen in summer since 2012. Deepwater prawn (Pandalus borealis), on the other hand, seems to be one of the losers: stocks of this Arctic-boreal species have declined in recent years. Not only due to overfishing and strong populations among its predators but probably also partly due to increasing warming.


Growing appetite for the Arctic

The fact that migration and distribution patterns of important fish species are changing cou
ld mean that Arctic waters might soon become even more attractive for commercial fishing fleets. The new fishing grounds are for the most part in international waters that are accessible to all states under the current legal situation, i.e. outside national jurisdiction. This poses a major risk since Arctic waters are not yet controlled and managed by regional fisheries management organisations. Although there are several intergovernmental bodies in which research and cooperation are carried out zealously this is mostly only regionally and on specific issues. The Arctic Council is the only global organisation responsible for the Arctic that aims to monitor and conserve natural resources. However, its decisions are not binding under international law and there is no comprehensive Arctic-specific legal system. Arctic governance is currently weak and many problems are unresolved. For decades, no one felt any urge to install a binding legal framework for an area sealed by a thick sheet of ice, making any commercial exploitation impossible. This is taking its toll now that the ice sheet is breaking apart: more and more potential users are registering their interests and making claims.

First of all, the Arctic states, i.e. those countries that have exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and thus claims to the commercial use of resources within their 200 nautical mile zones in the Arctic region. Some of them, however, are trying to push through more far-reaching demands and gain a bigger piece of the cake. For example, they argue with the extension of “their” continental shelf to substantiate their claims. And indeed, there is reason for this fascination, for the Arctic seabed is believed to hold 25 per cent of global oil and gas reserves, large quantities of tin, manganese, gold, nickel, lead, platinum and rough diamonds. The dispute among the so-called “Arctic Five” USA, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark (Greenland) over the use of resources in the Central Arctic Ocean started long ago. Russia made its claims symbolically clear as early as 2007 when diving capsules rammed a Russian flag of indestructible titanium into the ocean floor at the North Pole at a depth of 4,300 metres. The government in Moscow has demanded the largest part of the area, including the North Pole, since 2001. This corresponds to an area of 1.2 million square kilometres, about twice the size of France. Denmark, however, describes Russia’s territorial claims and action as a “meaningless gag for the media”.

China, which is thousands of kilometres away from the Arctic Circle, is demanding and propagating a “Polar Silk Road”. The shipping route through the ice-free Arctic Ocean would almost halve transport times to Europe. China is also filing fishing claims. Not entirely unjustified, because according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), all states have the right and the freedom to fish on the high seas outside of national territorial waters. Like China, the EU Commission announced its interests in the Arctic in November 2008, basing them on historical, geographical and socio-economic links with the Arctic, as set out in COM(2008) 763. The EU’s Arctic policy has three main objectives:

  • To protect and preserve the Arctic in harmony with its population
  • To further the sustainable use of resources
  • To contribute to improved governance in the Arctic, to implement and further develop the relevant agreements.

CAO agreement aims at sustainability of Arctic fisheries

The closer commercial exploitation of the Arctic gets, the more urgent it becomes to fix a binding legal framework and good governance for this area. For fisheries, this means above all implementing an ecosystem-based management policy that guarantees the sustainable exploitation of Arctic fish resources and the protection of the environment.  Management practices must be proactive, responsible and scientifically sound. This is the best way to prevent insufficient regulation of commercial fishing in the Arctic.

In June 2018, after two years and six rounds of negotiations, an agreement to prevent unregulated deep-sea fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean was published (CAO Agreement). It was negotiated by the Arctic Five and five other states (China, European Union, Iceland, Japan and South Korea). The CAO is imposing a moratorium on fishing in an area of the Arctic the size of the Mediterranean Sea for at least 16 years. This will prevent fishing from taking place there before effective fisheries management has been put in place to coordinate and control fishing activities. The moratorium’s relatively long timeframe gives researchers ample opportunity to explore the state of resources in the area. The parties involved have agreed to establish a joint programme of scientific research and monitoring within two years of the date of entry into force of the Agreement in order to gain a better understanding of the ecosystems in the Agreement area and to collect basic information on the state of fish stocks there.

Already in the preamble to the CAO Agreement the contracting states also laid down that a Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO) for the Arctic Area would be established during the moratorium period in order to regulate and control commercial fishing in the accessible deep-sea region of the Arctic Ocean. The fisheries management of this Arctic RFMO will be based on the precautionary principle (PA) and an ecosystem-based approach (EBS). The fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is equally important. The CAO agreement shows that the ten contracting parties have recognised their responsibility for Arctic waters and are willing to cooperate despite different interests. Although the Agreement does not protect the fragile marine areas that become accessible as a result of ice melting from desirability (China, for example, as a party to the agreement, reserves the right to carry out harvesting activities in the Agreement Area), it does protect it for the time being from hasty actions.

Climate change could lead to more disputes

Perhaps the CAO could even be a model for future fisheries regulations because there is a fear that climate change will cause further changes. Rising water temperatures can shift migratory paths, grazing lands and traditional fish species distribution areas, allowing other nations access to resources. This holds potential for conflicts that need to be resolved and mitigated in a civilised way. A positive example of international cooperation is the Joint Russian-Norwegian Fisheries Commission (JRNFC) which has for decades managed fishery resources in the Barents Sea successfully and profitably to the satisfaction of both partners. A rather negative example, on the other hand, was the dispute between Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, the EU and later Greenland over the climate-induced northwest expansion of the Atlantic mackerel stock. The migration and feeding patterns of mackerel in the North Atlantic have changed in recent years, with shoals moving further northwest into Faroese, Greenlandic and Icelandic waters. Iceland began ­– independently and not internationally co-ordinated – to fish mackerel, and the Faroes also increased their mackerel catches considerably. This led to a dispute with Norway and the EU because the total allowable biological catch quota was significantly exceeded and the sustainability of the fishery was lost. When the mackerel then entered Greenland waters fishing was again not coordinated. Although these conflicts have now been largely resolved they can break out again at any time if climate change and other influences change the traditional patterns of distribution of commercially important fish stocks and thus the fishing industry’s access possibilities. We need effective instruments that are quick to take effect in such cases and that take account of changing circumstances. This would ultimately also benefit the Arctic which is likely to move even more into the focus of int
ernational attention in the future.


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