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Northeast Passage: Sustainable fishing in the Arctic

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Geoff York

In the middle of the Bering Sea, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, two ships cross paths. Once again I have a ship on radar right at the end of my watch. This vessel is using the new AIS, or automated identification system, as does the Explorer. AIS lets other vessels know who you are and can also give information on the current routing and even purpose of the vessel. This one is a large commercial trawler heading north, over 200 feet long and very modern – the Starbound.

The Starbound. Photo: Geoff YorkThe Starbound. Photo: Geoff York

We hail the ship and ask for weather information to compare with what we have already received. The captain of the trawler is more than a little surprised to see our relatively small sailboat way out here and southbound. His first question is to ask where in the world we are coming from. Anders quickly replies “Sweden, via the Northeast Passage”. He wishes us well only to hail again shortly after with a few more questions. He has internet onboard and has already discovered our expedition web page – technology is amazing!

Our friendly exchange with Starbound reminds me of the recently approved Arctic Fishery Management Plan (FMP). This was a landmark decision where conservation groups and the fishing industry agreed to use a conservation first approach to commercial fishing in the US Arctic. The Arctic FMP prohibits the expansion of commercial fishing in federal arctic waters until researchers gather sufficient information on the arctic marine environment to prevent adverse impacts of commercial fishing on the ecosystem.

Implementation of the Arctic FMP lays down a new standard for planning resource development in the Arctic in a precautionary way. It bars resource exploitation until we know enough about the Arctic to allow safe and sustainable development to proceed. It protects what we have now while we gather the necessary information to plan future activities. I can only hope other industries follow this leadership.

The Arctic is home to many species of marine mammals, seabirds, shorebirds, fish, shellfish, crustaceans and other invertebrates. The Arctic is also a fragile ecosystem, with relatively short, simple food chains. It is slow to recover from disturbance and injury. Effects from even a small commercial fishery in the Arctic could have substantial impacts that ripple throughout the ecosystem.

The arctic acean is also the epicentre of climate change impacts, showing an average temperature increase almost four times the global average. Rapidly rising temperatures, reduced summer sea ice, ocean acidification, and reduced benthic productivity associated with climate change could have serious implications for any prospective fisheries.

The Arctic gives us the opportunity to do it right, to learn from past mistakes. If we take a precautionary approach, we can plan for sustainable fishing that does not damage the overall health of this fragile ecosystem and will provide both food and employment opportunities into the future.

As my watch ends, I can finally see our destination on the edge of our electronic navigation chart. The seas have calmed to gentle swells and the winds are slow and variable.

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