A group of international Arctic scientists telling us we need to slow down, do more research, and put in place some precautionary rules should get our attention. More than 2,000 scientists, mostly from Arctic countries, did this five years ago in an open letter to Arctic nations. They pointed out that it would be premature to allow industrial fisheries in the international waters surrounding the North Pole that may be accessible in the near future because of the melting ice pack. A lot more scientific study is needed to determine safe levels of fishing based on a better understanding of Arctic marine food webs and ecosystems.
Arctic governments responded with the 2015 Arctic Fisheries Declaration in which Canada, the United States, the Russian Federation, the Kingdom of Denmark (which includes Greenland) and Norway pledged not to allow their fishing fleets to enter the 2.8 million square kilometer region of the Central Arctic Ocean.
Case closed? Not quite. This week a team of nine scientists from Arctic countries and other major fishing nations issued a follow-up letter asking these governments to finish the job. The scientists state that a binding international agreement among Arctic countries and nations with distant water fishing fleets must be signed in order to prevent the premature start of commercial fishing and encourage greater scientific research and cooperation. The five countries that signed the 2015 declaration have been discussing such an agreement with Japan, South Korea, the European Union, China and Iceland.
Ocean scientists pleading for more research and precautionary action speak from experience. We know from many places around the world’s oceans that allowing commercial fishing to start before adequate knowledge can inform catch levels can easily lead to overfishing of the target species and damage other parts of the ecosystem linked to those fish. In the Arctic, even the mighty polar bear rely indirectly on abundant populations of Arctic cod to sustain seal populations, the bears’ primary food.
While the world struggles to address climate change, we should be able to at least put in place simple international rules to prevent the start of commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean. The next negotiations will take place November 28-30 in Washington, D.C. Let’s hope nations reach an agreement that maintains the no-fishing status quo and allow scientists to get on with their job. Thanks for the reminder!