05/31/2012 - Something never before seen in human history has occurred at the end of each Arctic summer for the past five years: open water in up to 40 per cent of the international portion of the central Arctic Ocean.
This region, which had been permanently frozen for at least 800,000 years, is located above the Bering Strait, adjacent to the maritime boundaries of Russia, the United States and Canada. It includes extensive shallow areas typically attractive to industrial fleets that travel the globe in search of fish.
Although fishing has not yet started in these waters, ice is becoming less of an impediment. At the same time, little is known about what drives population changes of the area’s fish, including Arctic cod, a species that scientists say is a linchpin in the marine ecosystem and essential to supporting an abundance of whales, seals, seabirds, and even polar bears.
Right now, no international rules are in place to ensure that industrial fishing could be done in a sustainable manner.
Among Arctic countries, Canada has had the most experience with how unregulated international fishing just beyond its maritime boundary can damage domestic fish populations, ecosystems and economies. Stocks of cod off Newfoundland and Labrador, the redfish and flatfish of the Southern Grand Banks, and the Greenland halibut on the nose and tail of the Grand Banks in Canadian waters were all compromised by unregulated foreign overfishing.
Since the 1960s, the Canadian government has attempted several times to deal with these problems through international agreements. In 1977, Canada was one of the first countries to establish a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, primarily to protect fish stocks on its continental shelf. The Greenland halibut war of 1995 between Spain and Canada, the Pacific Salmon Treaty in 1985 between Canada and the United States, and The Hague line dividing Georges Bank between Canada and the United States in 1984 were international fishery management decisions that only came about after Canadian fisheries were compromised in large part by foreign, high seas, industrial fleets. The damage Canada couldn’t prevent still haunts the country.
In April, more than 2,000 scientists from around the globe signed an open letter calling on leaders of the five Arctic coastal countries — Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway and Greenland (Denmark) — to prevent the start of commercial fishing in international Arctic waters until scientific research can be conducted and management measures are in place. More Canadian scientists have signed the letter than from any of the other 66 countries represented, perhaps reflecting the country’s negative experience with unregulated fishing beyond our borders.
If fishing begins in the central Arctic Ocean, it probably won’t be Canada that benefits. Non-Arctic countries will send their industrial fishing vessels to explore the area to assert their rights in this region. Yet, it will be Canada that suffers the negative consequences of damage to our adjacent ecosystems and fisheries, as well as challenges to this country’s sovereignty.
As Canadians, we should put to use what we have learned from our experience with high seas overfishing during the past four decades. By leading an international effort to put Arctic fishing rules in place to prevent the start of commercial fishing until sustainable harvests are possible, we can protect the rights of Inuit, safeguard the Arctic ecosystem, and, in the end, assert our national interests.
The Arctic Ocean is undergoing unprecedented changes. That means a period of uncertainty and adaptation not only for fish and marine mammals, but also for the Inuit whose traditional way of life depends on a healthy marine ecosystem. Amid this upheaval, history confirms one certainty: Unregulated, industrial, high seas fisheries without exception lead to stock depletion, adverse impacts on the coastal state and coastal peoples, and international confrontation that only results in management measures after the damage is done.
In the central Arctic Ocean, let’s change that record and establish rules before their absence becomes the problem.
Trevor Taylor of Ottawa is policy director for Oceans North Canada, a project of Pew Environment Group and Ducks Unlimited Canada, and a former minister of fisheries in the Newfoundland and Labrador government.