“Sea Ice Retreat Could Lead to Rapid Overfishing in the Arctic”
by Hannah Hoag
March 17, 2017
I wanted to send you this pitch now as it has a bit of a time peg, although there’s still some uncertainty about it.
Arctic High Seas Closed to Commercial Fishing
Twenty years ago, thick ice covered the central Arctic Ocean, the international waters that lie outside the exclusive economic zones of the five Arctic countries that surround it. But today, as the sea ice has thinned and receded, roughly 40 percent of that same region is now open water at the peak of the summer season. Fishing fleets from anywhere in the world could go into the central Arctic Ocean and establish a fishery, if they desired. It would not be illegal, but it would be unregulated and could potentially devastate a poorly understood marine ecosystem. But delegates from six Arctic nations – and the world’s top fishing nations, including China, Japan and South Korea – want to stop commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean before it starts.
After more than a year of meetings, these nations are meeting in Iceland from 15-18 March to hammer out the final details on an agreement that would keep commercial fishing vessels out of the region until scientists have improved their understanding of the marine ecosystem and can produce science-based assessments of the fish stocks and their distribution. It’s pretty much unheard of: “This is an area of ocean the size of the Mediterranean Sea that has never been commercially fished, and we are talking about doing the science before we go fishing,” says Scott Highleyman, the VP for Conservation at the Ocean Conservancy and who has been an observer at the discussions. In July 2015, the coastal Arctic states adopted an agreement that barred their fishing fleets from harvesting marine resources, but it left the ocean open to any other fishing boat in the world. This newly negotiated agreement will bring in the Asian nations that fish extensively in the world’s high seas, including in Antarctica. If all goes according to plan, it will be one of the few times nations haven’t waited for a fishing crisis to occur before acting.
I’ve been following this story since 2012, when scientists first called for the central Arctic Ocean to be closed to commercial fishing (Nature), and have covered it throughout 2016 for Arctic Deeply. In addition to Highleyman, I’m in touch with the chairman of the negotiations, and experts in Canada, Norway, Alaska and China, who are all familiar with the negotiations, Asia’s role in them, and the ominous precedent: the massive collapse of the pollock fishery in the international waters in the Bering Sea; twenty-five years later it has still not recovered.
I propose a 1,500 word story about the significance of the negotiations to the Arctic marine ecosystem, drawing on the pollock collapse, and what it might mean for international science: China has a research icebreaker that could be used to survey and monitor the ecosystem, activities that would provide widespread understanding of the ecosystem and cement China’s desire to engage in scientific diplomacy in the Arctic.
Here’s the challenge: My sources are all positive that this agreement will go ahead, but there is the possibility that it will require another meeting. That said, I have already done several interviews covering the background and importance of the agreement.
A bit about me: I’m an award-winning science journalist with 10+ years covering science, medicine, environment and policy, but the Arctic is my passion. I’ve reported news and features for Nature, Discover, Wired, New Scientist, National Geographic News (online) and more, and was a contributing writer (Environment) for TakePart. In 2015, I led the development and launch of Arctic Deeply, a digital publication covering circumpolar Arctic issues (environment, governance, economic development and people), and ran the platform’s day-to-day operations, from story development to commissioning, editing and production.
Let me know what you think, or if you have any additional questions.