Regulating fishing practices in the Artic

Overall, the Arctic has lost about


of its sea ice cover since 1980. Many scientists believe that the Arctic could be entirely ice-free in summer by the middle of this century – if not sooner.

The Arctic, an open wilderness of glaciers, tundra and sea ice, covers much of the earth’s northern pole. An area of pristine beauty, its unique ecosystem teems with wildlife – foxes, polar bears, caribou, walruses, seals, whales and fish colonies, as well as large populations of migratory birds that come for the summer to breed. In addition, the region’s indigenous populations, such as the Inuit Athapascan and Saami have made this distant land their home for millennia. Up until recently, long, dark, severe winters have helped preserve its remote tranquillity, with frozen sea ice preventing ships from chartering these waters.


However, the reality of climate change has been making waves in the Arctic and the size of the area once frozen over is shrinking. All told, in just the past three decades, Arctic sea ice has lost half its area and three quarters of its volume1. This is having far-reaching impacts in terms of the region’s ecosystem: thousands of walruses have come ashore in northwest Alaska, robbed of their usual icebergs as landing pads; frozen tundras are becoming swamplands; and newly open waters are eroding shorelines. These changing conditions are threatening the food security of the indigenous people who call the region home.


The thawing conditions and the shorter sea ice seasons are also opening up opportunities for trade and commerce. The melting ice means that previously unreachable areas, potentially rich in resources – including oil, gas and valuable minerals – are now increasingly accessible. Shipping traffic in the region is also increasing. In the coming years, the Arctic has the potential to become a key passageway for global marine transportation. In addition, fish are migrating northward, a fact that will no doubt become all the more attractive for neighbouring countries’ fisheries, as the rest of the world’s fish stocks become increasingly scarce. However, the indigenous communities of the north depend upon the marine resources of the Arctic for their sustenance and livelihoods. The importance of protecting those resources and the ecosystems on which they depend is critical for securing a sustainable future.


Given these rapid changes, it is important that marine resources are managed carefully. Many mistakes, in terms of managing fishing industries, have been made in the past. Canadians have already witnessed the poor management of their fisheries firsthand – on the east coast, cod has all but vanished and on the west coast, millions of Sockeye salmon have disappeared from the Fraser River2. Across the Atlantic, overfishing in European waters has resulted in drastically dwindling fish stock levels for decades. Unfortunately in both cases, a poor legal framework, combined with the poor management of resources have been at the root cause. Short-term economic profit has been put first, at the expense of longer-term sustainable fishing practices.


Oak believes that in order for the oceans to guarantee a source of food and sustain livelihoods for many years to come, it is imperative that the lessons learned in Canada and Europe are taken into account. Frameworks that protect the burgeoning fish-stocks in the Arctic need to be firmly in place. To this end, Oak supports work in the Arctic that invests in local and regional conservation efforts in the Chukchi, Bering and Beaufort Seas. Oak’s aim is to help promote healthy and resilient marine ecosystems for the benefit of future generations of Arctic residents.



The Beaufort Sea of Canada’s western Arctic stretches across the northern coasts of the Northwest Territories and Yukon and overlaps with the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. As one of the last places on earth that has not been overfished, the area supports one of the largest populations of beluga whales in the world. It is also home to 23 species of marine mammals, 100 key species of fish and 50 species of migratory seabirds. The Inuvialuit people have lived in this region for millennia, developing customs that are specific to the climate and vital to their culture, health and wellbeing.


“The protection of the Beaufort Sea ecosystem and the identification of emerging economic opportunities are critical to the ongoing wellbeing of Inuvialuit and their communities.”

- Nellie Cournoyea, Chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation


Before, commercial fishing was not possible in the Beaufort Sea due to sea ice. Now, commercial fishing and shipping traffic are becoming a reality. The race is on among nations and industries to claim, use and extract newly available resources; since 2002 there have been eight applications for exploratory fishing licenses in the Canadian Beaufort. However, increased development will come at a price – without adequate protection in place, the risk to the Arctic’s oceans and marine wildlife populations could be catastrophic. It will also impact the way of life of the Inuvialuit people, who depend on these natural resources for their survival.


Oak funds Pew Oceans North, which supports a commercial fisheries management plan in the Beaufort. The aim of the plan is to keep the region closed off to commercial fishing while scientists and the Inuvialuit determine its potential impact on the changing Arctic ecosystem and on Inuvialuit land claims. Pew, working in partnership with communities on the ground, helped support work that established the fishery ecosystem plan in the Arctic, by establishing a no industrial- fishing zone. In October 2014 the Canadian Minister of the Environment, formally adopted the Beaufort Sea Integrated Fisheries Management Framework.


This agreement between the Inuvialuit and Canada is an important accord that represents a cooperative management approach to marine mammals and fish that live in the Inuvialuit Settlement Area of the Western Arctic. This followed an earlier breakthrough, when Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) approved a final plan to prevent commercial fishing in 832,000 square kilometres of Arctic Ocean in the Canadian Beaufort. This will ensure a sustainable resource for local communities.


“The Beaufort Sea Integrated Fisheries Management Framework needs to be rigorously implemented if the health of the ocean and the rights and way of life of indigenous people are to be respected and sustained.”

- Leonardo Lacerda, Oak Director of Environment Programme


Along with a precautionary fisheries plan in US Arctic waters, this has now created the largest bilateral no-fishing area in the world. Under the plan, priority for new fisheries will be given to small-scale Inuvialuit-based operations and decisions about large, offshore commercial fishing operations will require additional scientific investigation. Oak began supporting work toward this outcome in 2009. Oak also supports similar community -based conservation efforts through WWF Canada and Tides Canada Foundation.


Pew welcomed this agreement which will ensure a sustainable resource for local communities . “The communities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region had concerns about maintaining the sustainability of the fish that they rely on as part of their subsistence lifestyle,” said Frank Pokiak, Chair of the Inuvialuit Game Council. “This framework takes steps to ensure that the Beaufort Sea ecosystem stays healthy and can continue to provide for the needs of the Inuvialuit people.”


On the other side of Arctic Canada in Baffin Bay, Canada’s only existing Arctic commercial fishery also made an important step toward sustainability in February 2014. DFO revised its integrated fisheries to include prohibition on trawling in 139,000 square kilometres of inshore marine habitat along Baffin Island. This means that much of the coastline around this large island will remain largely intact for fish, cold water corals, sponges and marine mammals (including whales and seals). Pew Oceans North helped forge a consensus for this key reform by working carefully and patiently with Inuit communities, the fishing industry and scientists.



These protective measures are crucial – we need only to look to Europe to find a clear and pertinent example of what unsustainably managed fish stocks look like. The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has governed European fishing fleets since the 1980s. Its aim is to manage European fishing fleets and conserve fish stocks sustainably, but year on year, its effectiveness was brought into question with the declining quantities of seafood being caught in European waters.


Although the CFP had been designed to manage a common resource which gave all European fishing fleets equal access to EU waters and permitted fishermen to compete fairly, it was clear that the implementation of its regulations was not leading to a sustainable outcome.


In July 2011 the European Commission considered fish stocks in the Atlantic to have been overfished by a staggering 63 per cent, and 82 per cent in the Mediterranean3.


The CFP resulted in a practice known as “bycatch”, which is when fish that are unintentionally caught, for example by trawlers, are returned, either dead or alive, to the ocean. Often the fish are dead and this practice is thought to have contributed to the decline of fish stocks. In addition, it had a “one size fits all” framework, which could not accommodate local needs and made it difficult to address the different types of fisheries across Europe.


Over the last five years Oak has supported several non-governmental organisations working for the reform of the CFP. These include, among others, Greenpeace International, Pew Charitable Trusts, WWF International, Globe Europe and the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers. Oak’s grantees’ efforts were rewarded in December 2013 with the CFP reform, which should now lead to the recovery and sustainability of many fish stocks in Europe. Discards will be gradually eliminated, avoiding and reducing unwanted catches. Other changes to be included in the new policy are: setting fishing quotas at appropriate levels; greater regional decision-making; and clearer labelling.


Learning from the past

Oak is delighted to see that change is on its way in Europe, after several decades of declining fish stocks. However, it is vitally important to learn from past mistakes so that they are not repeated in new, uncharted areas such as the Arctic, especially at this crucial moment in history – when the health and biodiversity of the climate is being increasingly compromised.


“It is imperative that we learn from previous experiences and ensure that Arctic fisheries and ecosystems are managed well, so that both marine resources and the communities of the Arctic who depend on them can be sustained for many years to come.”

- Anne Henshaw, Oak Environment Programme Officer


The Beaufort Sea Integrated Fisheries Management Framework is a step in the right direction. However, its rigorous implementation needs to be assured if the health of the ocean and the rights and way of life of indigenous people are to be respected and sustained.

The photos throughout the Environment Programme section of the report are of the natural flora and fauna in Belize, Alaska and Canada, and of the Arctic region’s indigenous people, who have made this land their home for millennia. Changing climatic conditions in recent times are now threatening their food security and way of life.


© Anne Henshaw / Oak Foundation

Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report


Year of publication: 2014



Oak Foundation commits its resources to address issues of global, social and environmental concern, particularly those that have a major impact on the lives of the disadvantaged. With offices in Europe, Africa, India and North America, we make grants to organisations in approximately 40 countries worldwide.


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