Nine nations and the European Union have reached a deal to place the central Arctic Ocean (CAO) off-limits to commercial fishers for at least the next 16 years. The pact, announced yesterday, will give scientists time to understand the region’s marine ecology—and the potential impacts of climate change—before fishing becomes widespread.
“There is no other high seas area where we’ve decided to do the science first,” says Scott Highleyman, vice president of conservation policy and programs at the Ocean Conservancy in Washington, D.C., who also served on the U.S. delegation to the negotiations. “It’s a great example of putting the precautionary principle into action.”
The deal to protect 2.8 million square kilometers of international waters in the Arctic was reached after six meetings spread over 2 years. It includes not just nations with coastal claims in the Arctic, but nations such as China, Japan, and South Korea with fishing fleets interested in operating in the region.
Thus far, thick ice and uncertain fish stocks have kept commercial fishing vessels out of the CAO, but the region is becoming increasingly accessible because of rapid loss of summer sea ice. In recent summers, as much as 40% of the CAO has been open water, mostly north of Alaska and Russia, over the Chukchi Plateau.
As the summer sea ice becomes thinner and its edge retreats northward, more sunlight is penetrating the water, increasing production of plankton, the base of the Arctic food web. These sun-fed plankton are gobbled up by Arctic cod, which in turn are hunted by animals higher up the food chain, including seals, polar bears, and humans. Some parts of the Arctic Ocean’s adjacent seas, such as the Barents Sea (off the northern coasts of Russia and Norway), saw steep increases in primary production in 2016, approaching 35% above the 2003–15 average.
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