Prospect of commercial fishing in central Arctic Ocean poses big questions for science

An image of 2018 Arctic sea ice minimum extent, with red line representing the 30-year average. Shrinking sea ice means new questions are being asked about the potential for commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean. (Image courtesy of NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio)

This week, researchers and representatives from the United States and Japan met at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to talk broadly about Arctic science collaboration.

One of the topics was the prospect of working together on a somewhat new field of research: central Arctic Ocean fisheries.

There has never been commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean — the part that surrounds the North Pole and is beyond any country’s jurisdiction. But with ice-free conditions projected within this century, countries are already preparing for how to deal with that possibility in the future.

The first legally-binding agreement to prevent commercial fishing in the region was signed last October by a number of countries, including the United States and Japan.

Joji Morishita of Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology was the head of the Japanese delegation for that agreement and gave a presentation at the UAF meeting on what Japan’s contribution to research on the topic might look like.

He said that while the Japanese fishing industry currently has no interest in fishing in the central Arctic Ocean, there are other reasons for Japanese researchers to be involved.

“There are many scientists and scientific institutions that are interested in the Arctic Ocean, which is going through very quick changes in terms of environment and biology,” Morishita said.

One of the key parts of the agreement is that the countries will collaborate on scientific research to bolster their knowledge of the central Arctic Ocean ecosystem. That research may underpin a fisheries management plan later on.

Candace Nachman is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries office, which has been leading the U.S. delegation on the science part of the agreement. She said there are some big scientific questions that need to be answered before policymakers can decide if there could and should be commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean.

“What fish species are there? What fish species could move there as (there’s) change in ice cover and ocean temperatures?” she said. “And then how are the ecosystem linkages really going to play into any fisheries that may or may not occur in the region?”

There will be a scientific meeting next month in Russia for the countries who signed the agreement to discuss further plans for research.

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