Last week, delegates from six Arctic nations and other countries with major fishing fleets met in Washington, D.C., to discuss plans to prohibit commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean until scientists can find out more about the fish stocks and how they are changing.
No commercial fishing occurs in the high seas of the Arctic Ocean yet. The 2.8m square kilometer area (1.08m sq. mile) region surrounds the North Pole. It is referred to as the high seas because it lies beyond the 200 nautical mile limit of the Arctic nations. Without regulations, it is permissible for fishing fleets to cast their nets within these waters.
Until recently, the area has been largely impenetrable to fishing fleets. According to satellite records spanning 1979-2000, this high seas area remained ice covered throughout the year, even during the summer. But in the past decade, summer sea ice has retreated dramatically.
During the summers of 2007 and 2012, as much as 40 percent of the Central Arctic Ocean – particularly the waters adjacent to Canada, Russia and the United States – was open water, Highleyman said. Permanent ice has given way to navigable seas and seasonal ice, he added.
In August 2015, the five Arctic countries with coastlines bordering the Arctic Ocean – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States – signed a voluntary agreement to bar commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean.
The declaration, signed in Oslo, is a voluntary agreement between the nations to keep commercial fishing vessels out of the region until scientists have improved their understanding of the region and can produce science-based assessments of the fish stocks and distribution.
Last week, Canada, China, Denmark, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Russia and the United States met to discuss ways to bring other countries in on the agreement – or to create a new one. China, Japan and South Korea are all observers to the Arctic Council, and the European Union's status within the organization is pending.
China, for example, captures more fish than any other country. In 2012, its fishing vessels captured almost 14 million tonnes (15.4 million U.S. tons) of marine fish globally, a 13 percent increase in a decade, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Pollution and overfishing near China's coast – and high demand for fish – are driving its fishing vessels into more distant waters, according to a 2012 report by the European Parliament. The report found China was aiming to increase its distant-water fishing fleet to 2,300 vessels by the end of 2015. In contrast, other nations are decreasing their fishing fleets to address overfishing.
Some researchers, including Daniel Pauly, from the University of British Columbia, warn that China's long-distance fishing fleet may be under-reporting its catch. In a 2013 study, he and his colleagues estimate that China's long-distance catch may have been as much as 4.6 million tonnes per year from 2000-11, more than 12 times the reported catch of 368,000 tonnes per year.
Non-Arctic nations are interested in access to shipping routes, natural resources and fishing, making it important to include them in any discussions about future fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean. There are concerns that in the absence of an international agreement that the region could become quickly overfished.
"As the sea ice starts to melt and the high seas of the Central Arctic Ocean become accessible for the first time in human history, how do we approach it? The idea of doing the science first and crafting the rules before we start is a really good idea," Highleyman said.
At present, there is "zero" evidence that commercially interesting fish stocks will extend in the Central Arctic Ocean, Highleyman said. Part of the reason for that is that no one has surveyed them. Researchers have studied the bottom and top of the food chain, studying phytoplankton and seabirds and mammals, respectively, but not the fish that occupy the middle rungs, he said.
"It wouldn't take very many boats to wipe out populations before we know what they are," Highleyman said.
In the 1970s and '80s, South Korea, China, Poland, Japan and other countries hauled millions of tonnes of pollock from the international waters in the central Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. A conservation agreement was signed in 1994, closing the area to pollock fishing until the stock rebounded. It has yet to recover.
Scientific experts from the Arctic coastal states and the additional nations have held meetings in parallel with the ongoing policy meetings, to share information on Arctic fish stocks and to develop research and monitoring priorities for the Central Arctic Ocean. One of the key questions they hope to study are the links between fish stocks and the adjacent ecosystems.
The policy talks are discussing three different possible approaches: modifying the signed declaration to include other nations in a non-binding agreement; drafting a new binding international agreement; and negotiating the creation of a regional fisheries management organization. All three could also be combined in a "stepwise" approach. Both the United States and Canada support a binding agreement on Arctic fisheries.
"It will fill an important gap in the ocean governance system," Karmenu Vella, the European Union's commissioner for the environment, fisheries and maritime affairs, said in a statement.
The next round of negotiations will be held in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in July.