Nations band together to conserve fish in central Arctic Ocean

Every April, Earth Day serves as an opportunity for countries to assess their work on issues ranging from reducing pollution to conserving wildlife.

One recent tool, resulting from cooperation among several countries, is a 16-year moratorium on commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean. The December 2017 pact sets aside an estimated 2.8 million square kilometers of ocean — an area larger than the Mediterranean Sea — and will allow scientists to study the region’s ecology and the potential impacts of commercial fishing.

The agreement demonstrates the willingness of governments to take pre-emptive action against an environmental concern. In addition to the U.S., Russia, Norway, Greenland/Denmark, China, Japan, Iceland, South Korea and the European Union have signed on to the fishing ban.

Two people on deck of boat filled with fish (© Marcel Mochet/AFP/Getty Images)
A new international pact will help prevent certain fish stocks from reaching dangerously low levels. (© Marcel Mochet/AFP/Getty Images)

Thick layers of ice once made fishing in the Arctic Ocean impossible. But rising temperatures have so rapidly melted the polar ice cap that now, in some summers, up to 40 percent of the central area is open water, making it plausible for global industrial fleets to fish in waters near the North Pole.

Under international law, these seas, outside each nation’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone, would be open to fishing by any country. But the agreement, according to scientists, will help an already fragile Arctic ecosystem by stopping the fishing of cod and other species by commercial operations. In the Arctic, cod are essential to survival for an enormous number of lifeforms including sea birds, whales, seals and polar bears.

Lessons learned

Because of unregulated fishing in open seas during the late 20th century, the international community has already witnessed devastating fishery collapses.

In the 1980s, industrial fishing fleets from numerous countries moved beyond Alaska’s shores to catch pollock in parts of the Bering Sea “donut hole,” which is not under any country’s domain. By the 1990s, the pollock species was experiencing a historic collapse.

To prevent a repeat of these ecological disasters, the U.S. has encouraged other countries to come to the table and discuss the future of the Arctic. Following December’s negotiations, which included both Arctic-range countries and major fishing nations, the parties agreed to an accord that aims to regulate commercial harvests far offshore while protecting cod and other species that may migrate farther north as Arctic waters warm.

In addition to the commercial fishing ban, the agreement calls for a cooperative scientific investigation of the Arctic marine system. The coalition will meet every two years to share information and revisit fishing rights. Until full consensus is reached, the fishing ban will remain in place to protect the changing Arctic ecosystem.