Thousands of scientists from 67 countries have called for an international agreement to close the Arctic high seas to commercial fishing until research reveals more about the freshly exposed waters.

Recent Arctic sea-ice retreat during the summer months has opened up some of the waters that fall outside of the exclusive economic zones of the nations that circle the polar ocean. In all, more than 2.8 million square kilometres make up these international waters, which some scientists say could be ice free during summer months within 10–15 years. Although industrial fishing hasn’t yet occurred in the northernmost part of the Arctic, the lack of regulation may make it an appealing target for international commercial-fishing vessels.

“The science community currently does not have sufficient biological information to understand the presence, abundance, structure, movements, and health of fish stocks and the role they play in the broader ecosystem of the central Arctic Ocean,” says the letter, which was released by the Pew Environment Group on Sunday on the eve of the opening of the International Polar Year 2012 scientific conference in Montreal, Canada. More than 2,000 scientists, including 1,328 from Arctic coastal countries, signed the letter.

The letter calls for the Arctic countries to put a moratorium on commercial fishing in the region until the impacts of fisheries on the central Arctic ecosystem, including seals, whales and polar bears, and those who live in the Arctic, can be evaluated.

In 2009, the United States adopted a precautionary approach by banning commercial fishing in the waters north of the Bering Strait, including the Chukchi and the Beaufort Seas. The Arctic Fishery Management Plan closes nearly 400,000 square kilometres to commercial fishing. Canada is drafting its own fisheries policy for the adjacent Beaufort Sea. In 2011, a memorandum of understanding between the Canadian federal government and the Inuvialuit people of the western Arctic prohibited the issuing of new commercial fishing licences in the area until a management plan was created and put into practice.

“Our knowledge of Canadian marine biodiversity is next to nil. We know nothing about trends over time for a single marine fish in the Arctic,” says Jeffrey Hutchings, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Hutchings says that scientists have pushed for such measures before, adding that it is up to the Arctic nations to implement such measures through the Arctic Council. “The Canadian government seems unwilling to take a stand similar to that of the US.”

This story originally appeared on the Nature News blog.

Photo: Jessica K. Robertson/ US Geological Survey

Written by Hannah

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