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Fishing in a warmer Arctic

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This article originally appeared in The Circle 04.16. Read all Circle issues here.

This year is the hottest on record with the global average temperature hitting a recorded high for two consecutive years. While this anomalously high temperature has been anticipated by climate scientists, Vicky Lam writes it still raises grave concerns.


The rate of warming is faster in the Arctic than the global average and triggers multiple stresses on the Arctic Ocean ecosystem including an increase of invasive species, a rise in ocean acidity and increased human activity brought about by the expansion of commercial fishing fleets as sea ice cover decreases. These changes are resulting in fluctuations in the quantity, quality and predictability of catches, all of which have direct implications for the economics of fisheries in the Arctic.

Fisheries are not only crucial income for fishers, but also important food and nutritional security in the Arctic region. The annual catch in the circumpolar region is about 2.5 million tonnes. Almost 99% of that total catch is by commercial and artisanal fishers. The remaining 1% belongs to both subsistence fisheries for personal consumption and recreational fisheries. This provided annual revenues of US $2 billion from 2001 to 2010. Although the total revenue from the fisheries sector only contributes a small proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP) of each country, the revenue from fishing is very important to small-scale fishers. Fish also contributes significantly to the nutritional health of Arctic communities, where fishing feeds families. In 15 Arctic Alaskan coastal communities, around half of their total catch is used for subsistence purposes.

Warming and loss of sea ice in the Arctic may lead to increased opportunities in the fisheries. Fish may migrate to the polar region as suitable habitats emerge. However, the increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration from the burning of fossil fuels, exacerbated by the melting sea ice, increases the acidity of the Arctic Ocean. The pH (potential of hydrogen), which is a numeric scale for measuring the acidity of the Arctic Ocean, is projected to decrease more rapidly than other parts of the global oceans. Low pH poses a threat to the survival of marine organisms especially shell-forming invertebrates. This therefore may counteract the positive effects in fisheries production related to the projected increase in ocean temperature and ocean life.

Ocean acidification is therefore adding uncertainty to future fisheries production and revenues. Although climate change indicates an increase in fisheries revenues in the 2050s in the Arctic under computer modeling analysis, part of this gain, however, is lost when ocean acidification is taken into account. From the analysis, ocean acidification is projected to lead to a 15% reduction in the fisheries revenues (US$ 112 million/ year) relative to a “climate change only” scenario. Finland and Canada are the countries being affected the most with a more than 20% reduction under ocean acidification. These projected changes in fisheries production and revenues will lead to subsequent impacts on fishers’ income and the Arctic economy overall. Although they are projected to increase under climate change, ocean acidification may lessen these projected gains of fishers and the whole Arctic economy by 12% and 16%, respectively. Despite the projected increase in fisheries-related jobs under climate change in the Arctic, ocean acidification may reduce this positive impact with a loss of approximately 3,100 jobs.

Melting sea ice may also draw other non-Arctic countries to fish in the Arctic. Persistent growing global demand for seafood may lead to many countries with distant water fleets to explore newly open fishing grounds such as the Arctic. According to international law, any country can fish in the high seas and unregulated harvest may lead to overexploitation in this region. These highly subsidized non-Arctic countries often have more efficient and more powerful fishing fleets and hence may out-compete the Arctic countries’ fleets, which are primarily small-scale based. Last year, five Arctic nations – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States – reached an agreement to regulate fishing in the Arctic Ocean. However, most of the important countries that operate fisheries in this region are not yet participating in this agreement. In 2016, to build on this agreement, 10 nations which are fishing in the Arctic met to further negotiate fishing rights in the Arctic, but no agreement was reached. The projected positive effects of climate change on fisheries may not benefit the Arctic countries unless all countries that operate fisheries in this region act together to prevent the high seas from being overfished.

With the implementation of the Paris Agreement, about 200 nations have agreed to hold the increase in the global temperature to well below 2°C compared to preindustrial times and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Ratifying nations are required to achieve this goal by reducing greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. The Agreement underscores the importance of research and adaptation plans for all stakeholders in the Arctic. These actions may reduce the impacts of warming in the Arctic and hence provide a glimmer of hope for the adverse impact of warming in the polar region.

VICKY W. Y. LAM is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

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