Warming drives worrying surge in Arctic fishing

by Ali Morrow | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 14 March 2013 23:09 GMT

Vanishing Arctic sea ice is good news for Inuit fishermen, but could lead to a collapse in fish stocks as fishing fleets head north

By Ali Morrow

Climate change may be good news for the Arctic fishing industry over the next few years, but it could spell long-term disaster for one of the world’s most promising yet fragile fisheries.

The warming waters off Baffin Island, the vast outcrop that lies between Canada and Greenland, have grabbed global attention as a hot new fishing ground. The reason is that the Arctic now has just one-fifth the area of summer sea ice that it had in the 1980s, according to William Cheung, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. That is opening the northern seas to many more fishing boats.

In 2012, commercial fishing contributed 12-14 million Canadian dollars ($11.7 million to $13.7 million U.S.) to the economy of Nunavut, a federally-administered territory the size of western Europe but with a population of just 34,000. The sector provided just 300 seasonal jobs. By contrast, Canada exported a total of $4.1 billion worth of fish and seafood products.

But Inuit communities are starting to see the vast opportunity created by global warming.

“In two months, we’ve caught 300,000 pounds of turbot. That’s double the total catch of last year,” said Sakiasie Sowdkooapik, mayor of Pangnirtung, a community of 1,500 on Baffin Island. Much of the catch is being flown to China, the Nunavut fishery’s number one buyer.

With few other economic opportunities, Inuit communities have up to now been heavily dependent on the federal government for welfare cheques and other aid. Nunavut received $1.4 billion ($1.3 billion U.S.) from the Canadian federal government in the current fiscal year, equal to 82 percent of its total revenues.  


Now, two local airlines, Canadian North and First Air, fly fish out of Pangnirtung seven days a week. The fish are flown on small aircraft to Iqaluit, where they are transferred to bigger planes. On the return trip, the airlines fly in supplies from the south, including food and fishing gear, for the community store, Sowdkooapik said.

Sales are up at the two community stores with more fishermen able to buy better gear and equipment. Domestic violence is down and calls to the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment have dropped since the fishery started to take off.

“Everyone is very supportive (of the fishery’s growth),” Sowdkooapik said, because “we have no other economic opportunities. Tourism is dead, no construction, no mining, we only have income from turbot and char.”

But scientists are worried that as the fishing boom gathers momentum, it could sow the seeds of its own destruction.

As more fish flow into warmer Arctic waters, the fear is that there will be too many hooks in the sea vying for fish of an unknown quantity, size and age. Little research has been done into the Arctic fishery. Without detailed knowledge of the resource, there’s a high risk of long-term damage to the region’s fish stocks. 

“We don’t have a track record of fishing up there,” warns George Rose, professor and chair of the Marine Institute at Memorial University in St John’s, Newfoundland. “We don’t know what percentage is being taken out because we don’t know what the total stock is.”


Scientists are increasingly concerned that the Arctic turbot, the main species off Nunavut’s coast, could suffer the same fate as cod further south. With little oversight or regulation, that North Atlantic fish stock was overfished and collapsed in the early 1990s.

“The North today is what it was like 100 years ago in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Rose. “Just like what happened with the cod, it (commercial fishing activity) has been creeping up and up over the past 20 years.”

A diamond-shaped flat fish, Arctic turbot live in the deep, cold waters between Greenland and Canada on the soft, muddy sea floor. The species is found more than 300 metres below the surface, in water no warmer than 3-5 degrees Celsius. “They may move deeper with age, and if shallower waters get colder,” Rose said, because “the deepest waters are more stable in terms of temperature.” Young Arctic turbot, on the other hand, are more at home in shallower waters, he adds.

A recent report on Arctic turbot, co-authored by Rose, found an especially alarming increase in the proportion of young, small fish being caught, "even though the ministry of fisheries and oceans has protocols against it," he said.

Canadians are not the only ones dipping more aggressively into the Arctic turbot fishery. The Davis Strait, separating Baffin Island from Greenland, is divided into economic zones, splitting fishing rights equally between Canada and Greenland. Each has an annual catch quota, which has been steadily climbing for the past decade.

But with little research, no one is sure whether there are enough fish to support both countries’ catch. “We don’t have a good answer for that,” Rose said.

Concerns about the fishery’s sustainability are heightened by the unusually long lifespan of Arctic turbot, said Trevor Taylor, policy director for Oceans North Canada, a non-profit collaboration between Pew Charitable Trusts and Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Arctic turbot (also known as Greenland halibut) live longer than many other fish species, and reach maturity at an older age. They only start reproducing when they’re 8 to 10 years old, “making them particularly susceptible to over fishing,” Taylor said, because it takes longer to replenish fish that are harvested.

How old Arctic turbot can grow is debated, but “certainly 40 years old is possible and maybe more. That is old for fish,” Rose said. If they’re over fished, it could take decades to rebuild the stock.

Nunavut is set to open its first commercial fishing harbour this summer, thanks to $17 million ($16.6 million U.S.) in funding from the federal government. Along with much bigger trawlers from Atlantic Canada and Greenland that also fish in the area, the Nunavut boats will be hauling in more and more turbot, without any certainty about the long-term consequences or the health of the resource.

Rose has a warning for the fishermen and those that regulate them: “This fishery is really important for social and economic reasons. No one wants a repeat of cod. I think everyone shares the wish to see a sustainable fishery up there.”

Ali Morrow has worked as a strategic planner at an international advertising agency and is now a fellow of global journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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