Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Accord Would Regulate Fishing in Arctic Waters

It was once protected by ice. Now regulation will have to do the work.The governments of the five countries with coastline on the Arctic have concluded that enough of the polar ice cap now melts regularly in the summertime that an agreement regulating commercial fishing near the North Pole is warranted.

Talks are scheduled for later this month among diplomats and fisheries officials from Norway, Denmark, Canada, the United States and Russia. Most concern is focused on newly ice-free waters above the Bering Strait, above the exclusive economic zones of Russia and the United States, and now accessible to trawler fleets from hungry Pacific Ocean nations like China and Japan.

An accord would protect the open water until the fish stocks there can be more fully studied.

Though supported by conservationists, the agreement’s principal intention is not to conserve this new fish habitat, formed by the receding of polar ice as the world warms up. The intention of an accord, backed by fishing industries in the coastal nations, is to manage for commercial exploitation any stocks of fish that already inhabit the ocean but used to live under the ice, like Arctic cod, as well as fish that may migrate into the new ice-free zone from farther south, as the ocean warms.

Russia had been a holdout in the negotiations, started by the United States five years ago. But the upper chamber of Russia’s Parliament, the Federation Council, signaled support for the agreement last year. Talks are scheduled to begin on April 29 in Washington, the State Department has confirmed.

If successful, it will represent the third such accord struck by countries in the far north to manage the commercial development and industrialization of the region, which is expected to increase with global warming.

The other two agreements reached so far regulate search and rescue, and the response to oil spills as new drilling acreage and shipping lanes open up near the coasts.

The fishing accord would regulate commercial harvests in an area farther offshore — in the so-called doughnut hole of the Arctic Ocean. This is a Texas-size area of international water that includes the North Pole and is encircled by the exclusive economic zones of the coastal countries.

That the center of the Arctic Ocean was unregulated was hardly a concern when it was an icebound backwater. That is changing. Last summer, 40 percent of the central Arctic Ocean melted.

In fact, the agreement is unusual for protecting a huge area from human exploitation before people have had much chance to exploit it; before the last decade, scientists estimate, the doughnut hole was icebound for about 100,000 years

“Five countries are talking about solving a problem before it starts,” Scott Highleyman, the director of Arctic programs at the Pew Charitable Trust, which supports the fishing moratorium, said in a telephone interview.

“How often do we look back at something and say ‘Gee, if we’d only thought of that,’” he said. “As somebody who works on natural resources issues, this is very refreshing. We are fixing something before it is broken.”

Dmitry M. Glazov, a whale biologist at the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution and an authority on the marine ecosystem of the ice floes, said the waters teem with cod, herring, Greenland sharks, whales, walruses, seals and polar bears. It is unclear, though, whether the fish stocks are large enough to support a commercial fishery.

Advocates of a conservation agreement say that until the new ice-free area created by global warming is fully studied, it should be preserved. Diplomats agree that the region should be protected from fishing fleets until scientists have had a chance to assess its marine populations.

“We want any fishing that takes place there to be properly managed, to maintain it for commercial purposes,” one diplomat from an Arctic nation involved in the talks said. “Are there fisheries in the future that are moving north as the waters are warming and the ice is receding? The scientists cannot say with certainty now.”

The part of the doughnut hole that is thawing most quickly in the eastern Arctic, above Alaska and the Russian region of Chukotka, is well within the range of industrial fishing fleets in Asia.

Chinese trawlers fish for krill in Antarctic waters, about 7,500 miles from China. The Arctic Ocean international zone is only about 5,000 miles from the Chinese coast, according to maps prepared by a Russian fisheries journal, Rybnye Resorsi.

Source: New York Times

Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Hallermann/Marine Photobank