There is a general agreement that global warming will increase the productivity and fish stocks in the Arctic Ocean and benefit the fisheries industry by facilitating fishing vessels’ access to areas previously covered by ice. However, recent research is less optimistic about the potential impacts of climate change on fish stocks and fishing conditions.
November 21 was World Fisheries Day. The end of November also marked the start of this year’s winter fishing season, which begun later than usual in some of the Arctic regions, such as Kotzebue in northwest Alaska, due to a late freeze-up. Perfectly timed with the beginning of the United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris (COP21), questions arise about the impacts of global warming on fish and fisheries in the Arctic.
Lack of data and need for more research
Based on a report on “Fisheries Management and the Arctic in the Context of Climate Change”, which was commissioned by the European Parliament and published in June, the EU officially recognized the necessity to conduct more research on Arctic fisheries and ecosystems. The report pointed to a conspicuous dearth of information and knowledge gaps regarding Arctic fish and the impacts of climate change on the Arctic Ocean’s ecosystem.
Arctic fish species are extremely well adapted to the highly variable Arctic environment. This means that they can only tolerate a narrow temperature range. Most of the species are bottom dwelling and do not undertake long distance migrations.
As a consequence, they are heavily affected by climate change, the fishing industry and invasive fish species that extend their habitat northward. The majority - 60 percent - of the commercial fish species of the Arctic Ocean and Adjacent Seas (AOAS) are therefore classified as having low resilience, whereas only 16 percent of the species are considered as being highly resilient.
Considering the shortfall of information, in the last few years Canada has been accused of expanding its Arctic fishery without understanding the consequences. Acknowledging the need for more research, Canada’s Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq vowed to promote research on Arctic fisheries with $7 million in funding at the beginning of this year. The money will be spent on studying Nunavut’s commercial clam industry, turbot, northern shrimp and Arctic char fisheries.
Arctic states agree on fishing limits
The lack of knowledge about the Arctic Ocean’s ecosystem and dynamics also motivated the five Arctic coastal states to discuss a fishing moratorium with non-Arctic nations, in particular China, Korea, Japan, and the European Union. The moratorium would ban fishing fleets from fast-thawing seas around the North Pole until more research has been carried out. The meeting took place in Washington, D.C., from December 1 to 3 and followed up on a declaration of intent signed in July by Canada, the United States, Norway, Denmark and Russia. Iceland was also invited to the talks, but before the meeting it was questionable whether the country would cooperate, given its shipment of slaughtered endangered fin whales to Japan this summer.
Fear of “false solutions” at COP21
The impact of climate change on Arctic fisheries is also a matter of concern at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21), which currently takes places in Paris and lasts until December 11. In the run-up to the conference, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples urged the participants to implement the United Nations Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries. The forum fears that “false solutions” will result in “ocean grabbing” and the privatization and commodification of common property land and water under environmental conservation schemes. Instead, the socially and ecologically just visions of small-scale fisheries could make up a part of the “right” solution to climate change.