In many parts of the world, commercial fishing is the primary human impact on oceans. The United Nations estimates that 80 percent of world fish stocks are fully exploited or overfished and require precautionary management. The problem of commercial overfishing has become so intense that we have altered the basic food web, eliminating target species at the top of the food chain. That is followed by fishing down the food web until the catch becomes plankton-eating fish at the base of the food web. Habitat destruction from bottom trawling disturbs an area of the seabed as large as Brazil, the Congo and India combined every year. The massive bycatch – or unintentional catch of fish, birds, turtles and mammals – adds to the impact on oceans.
Fortunately, the North American Arctic has largely been spared this legacy of overfishing, habitat destruction and bycatch. There is still an opportunity to avoid this fate. Overfishing in Arctic waters could have huge consequences for its entire ecosystem because linkages in the food web here are shorter than in more temperate waters. A fishery targeting Arctic cod could severely affect other fish populations, seabirds and marine mammals. In the words of U.S. Arctic fishery managers: “Arctic cod is identified as a keystone species which needs to remain close to current carrying capacity in order for the marine ecosystem to retain its present structure.”
Precautionary, Ecosystem-Based Management
The rapidly changing Arctic marine ecosystem and lack of information on fish populations makes it impossible to predict if and how sustainable commercial fishing could take place. For that reason, the United States closed nearly the entire U.S. Arctic Ocean in December 2009 to any commercial fishing. This measure had the full support of Alaska Native leaders, scientists and the commercial fishing industry. The closure will remain until enough information can be gathered to ensure that commercial fishing will not jeopardize the health of the ecosystem or the people who depend on it.
“Without careful management, exploitation could easily de-stabilize the marine ecosystem at a time when it is already under extraordinary pressure….There is at present too little known about how marine ecosystem function in the Arctic, let alone how they will respond to the dramatic changes in progress, to prescribe safe harvest levels for living marine resources in the U.S. Arctic.”
– Statement of 43 scientists to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council
“We recognized early on that climate change in the high Arctic was causing a rate of change in that region that argued for a unique precautionary approach to fishery management. There are many concerns regarding the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, and existing scientific research hasn't answered these concerns. Preventing the incursion of commercial fisheries until the science is available to make sound decisions is the only logical approach to management in this region.”
– Marine Conservation Alliance (organization representing 60 percent of Bering Sea Commercial fishing industry)
“There isn’t sufficient baseline information about Arctic marine waters to make informed decisions regarding the opening of fisheries in the Arctic….Arctic fisheries provide healthy food and a spiritual connection to the Inupiaq people who permanently inhabit the Arctic. At the same time, the productivity of the Arctic environment to support our subsistence-based economy is extremely sensitive, and the safe and available harvest of these coast resources is necessary for survival…”
– Northwest Arctic Borough letter to North Pacific Fishery Management Council in favor of Arctic Fishery Management Plan