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Fish face overexploitation even in Arctic, study finds

Feb. 4, 2011
Courtesy of the University of British Columbia
and World Science staff

Al­most 75 times more fish are be­ing caught in the Arc­tic than Un­ited Na­tions fig­ures show, sci­en­tists say. The alarm­ing find­ings, they add, raise a warn­ing flag that the fish­ing could quickly be­come un­sus­tain­a­ble.

“In­ef­fec­tive re­port­ing… has giv­en us a false sense of com­fort that the Arc­tic is still a pris­tine fron­tier when it comes to fish­eries,” or com­mer­cial fish­ing ar­eas, said the Uni­vers­ity of Brit­ish Columbi­a's Dick Zeller. “Con­serva­t­ion ef­forts in the Arc­tic have so far fo­cused on the ex­ploita­t­ion of ma­rine mam­mals – seals and po­lar bears are frankly easy on the eye and plain to see,” added Zeller, au­thor of a re­port on the new find­ings. “None of them would sur­vive, how­ev­er, if we al­low over-ex­ploita­t­ion of fish in this del­i­cate but so-far ne­glected ecosys­tem.”

His team es­ti­mates that fish­er­ies catches in the Arc­tic to­taled 950,000 tons from 1950 to 2006. The group re­con­struct­ed fish­er­ies catch da­ta from var­i­ous sources – in­clud­ing lim­it­ed gov­ern­men­tal re­ports and an­thro­po­log­i­cal records of na­tive popula­t­ion ac­ti­vi­ties – for the U.N. Food and Ag­ri­cul­ture Or­gan­iz­a­tion's Fish­er­ies Sta­tis­ti­cal Ar­ea 18, which co­vers Arc­tic coast­al ar­eas in north­ern Si­be­ria, Alas­ka and Can­a­da.

The Arc­tic is one of the last great ocean wilder­nesses. The ex­tent of the sea ice in the re­gion has de­clined in re­cent years due to glob­al warm­ing, sci­en­tists say, rais­ing con­cerns over loss of bio­divers­ity as well as the ex­pan­sion of in­dus­t­ri­al fish­er­ies in­to this ar­ea. The new find­ings are pub­lished this week in the jour­nal Po­lar Bi­ol­o­gy.

Of­fi­cial U.N. da­ta on fish catches in Ar­ea 18 from 1950 to 2006 were based solely on sta­tis­tics sup­plied by Rus­sia and amounted to 12,700 tons. 

Zeller and col­leagues pe­r­formed a de­tailed anal­y­sis and found while the U.S. Na­tional Ma­rine Fish­er­ies Ser­vice's Alas­ka branch re­ports ze­ro catches to the or­gan­iz­a­tion for the Arc­tic ar­ea, the state De­part­ment of Fish and Game has col­lect­ed com­mer­cial da­ta and un­der­taken stud­ies on 15 Arc­tic coast­al com­mun­i­ties that rely on fish­er­ies. The es­ti­mat­ed fish catch dur­ing this pe­ri­od in Alas­ka alone to­taled 89,000 tons. 

While no catches were re­ported to the U.N. or­gan­iz­a­tion by Can­a­da, the re­search team found that com­mer­cial and small-scale fish­er­ies ac­tu­ally amounted to 94,000 tons in catches in the same time span. Mean­while, Rus­sia's to­tal catch was ac­tu­ally a stag­ger­ing 770,000 tons from 1950 to 2006, or nearly 12,000 tons per year.

“Our work shows a lack of care by the Ca­na­di­an, U.S. and Rus­sian go­vernments in try­ing to un­der­stand the food needs and fish catches of north­ern com­mun­i­ties,” said Dan­iel Pauly of the uni­ver­sity, who led the study. Re­search­ers from the school's Sea Around Us Proj­ect, also led by Pauly, have pre­vi­ously found a trend of fish stocks mov­ing to­wards po­lar re­gions due to cli­mate change. This, cou­pled with in­creased ac­ces­si­bil­ity of the Arc­tic ar­eas due to melt­ing sea ice, is ex­pected to put huge pres­sure on the re­gion for fu­ture large-scale fish­er­ies.

“This re­search con­firms that there is al­ready fish­ing pres­sure in this re­gion,” he said. “The ques­tion now is wheth­er we should al­low the fur­ther ex­pan­sion of fish­er­ies in­to the Arc­tic.”


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Almost 75 times more fish are being caught in the Arctic than United Nations figures show, scientists say. The alarming findings, they add, raise a warning flag indicating that the fishing could quickly become unsustainable. “Ineffective reporting… has given us a false sense of comfort that the Arctic is still a pristine frontier when it comes to fisheries,“ or commercial fishing areas, said the University of British Columbia's Dick Zeller. “Conservation efforts in the Arctic have so far focused on the exploitation of marine mammals – seals and polar bears are frankly easy on the eye and plain to see,“ added Zeller, author of a report on the new findings. “None of them would survive, however, if we allow over-exploitation of fish in this delicate but so-far neglected ecosystem.“ His team estimates that fisheries catches in the Arctic totaled 950,000 tons from 1950 to 2006. The group reconstructed fisheries catch data from various sources – including limited governmental reports and anthropological records of native population activities – for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's Fisheries Statistical Area 18, which covers arctic coastal areas in northern Siberia, Alaska and Canada. The Arctic is one of the last great ocean wildernesses. The extent of the sea ice in the region has declined in recent years due to global warming, scientists say, raising concerns over loss of biodiversity as well as the expansion of industrial fisheries into this area. The new findings are published this week in the journal Polar Biology. Official U.N. data on fish catches in Area 18 from 1950 to 2006 were based solely on statistics supplied by Russia and amounted to 12,700 tons. Zeller and colleagues performed a detailed analysis and found that it's only the tip of iceberg. The group found that while the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service's Alaska branch reports zero catches to organization for the Arctic area, the state agency, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has collected commercial data and undertaken studies on 15 coastal communities in the Alaskan Arctic that rely on fisheries for subsistence. The estimated fish catch during this period in Alaska alone totaled 89,000 tons. While no catches were reported to the U.N. organization by Canada, the research team shows commercial and small-scale fisheries actually amounted to 94,000 tons in catches in the same time span. Meanwhile, Russia's total catch was actually a staggering 770,000 tons from 1950 to 2006, or nearly 12,000 tons per year. “Our work shows a lack of care by the Canadian, U.S. and Russian governments in trying to understand the food needs and fish catches of northern communities,“ said Pauly. Researchers from the Sea Around Us Project at the university, led by Pauly, have previously found a trend of fish stocks moving towards polar regions due to the effects of climate change. This, coupled with increased accessibility of the Arctic areas due to melting sea ice, is expected to put huge pressure on the region for future large-scale fisheries. “This research confirms that there is already fishing pressure in this region,“ said Pauly. “The question now is whether we should allow the further expansion of fisheries into the Arctic.“