The impact of climate change

The impact of climate change on the fishing stock in these, and other areas, is very difficult to predict. Scientists admit that 'it is not clear how climate change will affect . . . the most important zooplankton species that acts as food for fish in Arctic waters', the calanus finmar-chicus, which they consider to be a 'crucial question'.22 And as the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment emphasizes, the adaptability of these, and every other life form, is simply impossible to guess, leading to 'a high level of uncertainty'.23

The most likely scenario is that fish stocks, particularly supplies of cod, are likely to start colonizing more northerly waters as they become warmer. Cod stocks thrived during a relatively warm period that lasted between the 1920s and 1950s, but were then badly hit by a drop in water temperatures during the 1970s and 1980s. And even if cod stocks do stagnate or diminish, in the Barents and Bering Seas or elsewhere, their numbers could well be offset by an increase not just in farm fishing (between 2004 and 2007 there was a threefold increase in the production of farmed cod) but in other warm-water breeds that feed off different ocean foods. 'In a warmer ocean, with less ice in the Arctic, we can expect that a number of species will extend their habitats further north', continue the scientists. The blue whiting, for example, could move further northwards and might well become established in the Greenland Sea. It is also possible that herring could return to the Icelandic coast, where it had been well established until the mid-1960s, when a sudden drop in local temperatures killed off local plankton and decimated fish stocks.

The movement of fish stocks

At first sight it might seem to be a laudable development that many breeds of fish will be able to move northwards and thrive in areas that they were previously unable to even approach. But tensions might arise if stocks migrate from the waters that belong to one country into those of another.

One place where this could happen is the Bering Strait. In 2002

the Arctic Research Commission, a special panel appointed by the US president, reported its findings and concluded that some species of fish were already moving north through the Bering Strait and were likely to continue doing so. 'Climate change is likely to bring extensive fishing activity to the Arctic, particularly in the Barents Sea and Beaufort-Chukchi region, where commercial operations have been minimal in the past', argued the report. 'In addition, Bering Sea fishing opportunities will increase as sea ice cover begins later and ends sooner in the year.'24

Today, as the sea ice retreats, snow crabs, which are highly prized by fishermen and their customers, appear to be moving away from their traditional locations off Alaska and heading towards Russia, where the waters may be providing them with a better venue to find their sea foods. American crab boats already have to steam further than ever to bring a good haul, and some fishery experts have predicted that these creatures could eventually move out of American waters altogether.

Most fishermen are likely to accept these changes with stoicism, and perhaps find new commercial openings. 'If the crabs move over into the Russian zone', as the president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association in Seattle has said, 'there's not much to be done about that except hope they come back some day.'25 But some fishermen will be tempted to stray into Russian waters and risk seizure and the imposition of penalties. Others will move into areas of high seas that are unregulated by fishing quotas and exploit them to the full, leading to a serious depletion of stock as well as to angry confrontations with governments, rival fishermen and environmentalists.

An EU document, published in November 2008, pointed out:

Climate change might bring increased productivity in some fish stocks and changes in spatial distributions of others. New areas may become attractive for fishing with increased access due to reduced sea ice coverage. For some of the Arctic high seas waters there is not yet an international conservation and management regime in place. This might lead to unregulated fisheries.16

The EU proposed setting up safeguards as soon as possible to prevent this scenario from being realized. It is essential, ran the report, to put in place:

a regulatory framework for the part of the Arctic high seas not yet covered by an international conservation and management regime before new fishing opportunities arise. This will prevent fisheries developing in a regulatory vacuum, and will ensure fair and transparent management of fisheries in accordance with the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing . . . until a conservation and management regime is in place for the areas not yet covered by such a regime, no new fisheries should


EU leaders have also expressed their concern that fish will migrate into waters where there are no fishing quotas at all, leading to their exploitation and depletion as well as clashes between rival fishermen. 'Climatic changes may also lead to changes in the migration patterns of important fish stocks', as Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Stoere, pointed out in January 2009. 'Commercial fisheries may expand into the Arctic Ocean. Wherever commercial fisheries take place, an effective management regime is imperative in order to prevent depletion of stocks.' Norway and the EU Commission have both vowed to tackle this challenge by 'developing and implementing the integrated management plan for the Barents Sea and [believe] that this plan could serve as a model for the management of other maritime areas - including the Arctic Ocean'.28

The decline of global stocks

There is another reason why the Arctic could be the setting for confrontations over fishing rights. This is the relative availability of cod, one of the world's most highly prized fish, in the Barents Sea as a result of its exploitation elsewhere in the world. Mainly as a result of overfishing in other waters, the global catch of cod has slumped around 70 per cent since the early 1970s and in some key places, such as the North Sea, it has fallen even more. Most experts think that overfishing is still rife in many areas, despite clear warnings about the disastrous effect this is having, and if they are right then stocks are likely to carry on shrinking considerably.29

If this steady rate of global decline continues, it is likely to be to the Barents, currently home to the world's largest stock, that some fishermen and their respective governments may well turn in the years ahead. Likewise if climate change eradicates fish supplies, then the Barents may well turn out to be one of the cod's last remaining refuges. 'The only cod stocks that still support large fisheries', as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) wrote in a 2004 report, 'are the ones outside Iceland with an annual catch around 200,000 tons and the world's largest cod stock in the Barents Sea, with an estimated catch in 2004 of almost 500,000 tons.' But even here supplies are under serious threat from fishermen who blatantly disregard international quotas. As the WWF report continues, there are 'serious concerns about high fishing pressures and illegal fishing. In November 2003, the joint Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission set the fishing quotas for 2004 to 486,000 tons, ignoring the scientific advice of a total catch of less than 389,000 tons.'30

This leads to an alarming possibility. If global stocks of cod, or any other fish, continue to diminish, then it seems quite possible that there could be an increasing number of clashes in the Barents Sea between Norwegian and Russian coast guards on the one hand and international trawlers - or, more specifically, poachers - on the other. After all, more trawlers than ever before might be tempted to start illegal fishing, exceeding quotas in the high seas, such as the Loophole, or else straying into national waters that lie within 200 miles of the coast. This would pose a clear threat to the livelihoods of Norwegian and Russian fishermen: after all, around half of Norway's annual catch and 12 per cent of Russia's fishing harvest comes from the Barents Sea, and any sudden depletion of its stocks would have a serious economic impact. If this does happen and supplies of cod run short, then this might conceivably create tension between Russia and Norway, as their own fishermen illegally stray into each other's waters. It is easy to imagine international tension brewing up over such an issue.

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