Can we sustainably fish the Canadian Arctic?

Brett Favaro

It is common knowledge that industrial fishing is an important part of Canada’s economy. But what you may not know is that about 98% of revenue from fishing comes from just one third of our coastline. Fisheries on the west and east coasts currently produce the lion’s share of our seafood, leaving the massive extent of the Canadian Arctic relatively untapped.

While there currently isn’t much industrial fishing in the Arctic, things may be changing. First, as climate change continues unabated, sea ice cover decreases accordingly. In fact, ice cover is now so low, that the first commercial journey through the Northwest Passage was recently completed by a Danish shipping company. Second, there is substantial pressure for the federal government to invest in infrastructure in the region to promote Canada’s Arctic sovereignty and make the region more accessible to industry. It stands to reason that infrastructure that supports shipping could be well positioned to support fishing as well. Thirdly, direct government and NGO investment into developing new fisheries is currently happening, particularly in Nunavut where fishing could provide badly needed money and jobs to local communities. Fourth, some fish species are shifting northward in search of cooler waters, again due to climate change.

Why does Arctic fishing matter? For one, the region is likely to be very sensitive to fishing activity. It has low primary productivity, suggesting that it may not be capable of sustaining large amounts of fishing effort. We also don’t have much baseline data about how large or productive fish stocks are in the region (because they’re usually covered in ice!), so we have to be very careful if we begin to tap these resources.

In addition, where commercial fishing goes, bycatch and benthic habitat damage can soon follow. In the Arctic, this has already started to happen, with greenland sharks being caught as bycatch in fledgling turbot fisheries.

Finally, the Arctic is host to a wide range of deep-sea corals and sponges, many of which have been untouched by fishing activity and are in good condition. Therefore, these regions have been identified as areas of ecological and biological significance.

Many scientists have called for a ban on fishing in the high Arctic due to many of these concerns. Such a ban is unlikely to happen in Canadian waters, where communities desperately need the money, and where industrial activity appears to be spreading already. In addition, the Arctic can certainly handle some amount of fishing – the Inuit have been doing it for thousands of years, although there is some evidence that climate change may impact this too.

For these reasons, I will use my Liber Ero Fellowship to draw from lessons learned in fisheries around the world in order to see how they could apply to the Canadian Arctic. Over my next several posts on this blog I will describe the research program and what I hope to accomplish with my two years as a Liber Ero fellow.

I won’t be doing this alone. This project was conceived in collaboration with Susanna Fuller at the Ecology Action Centre, Scott Wallace at the David Suzuki Foundation, and Julia Baum at the University of Victoria.  They know how to get things done, and I am excited to work with them in this program. But we’re always looking to build a bigger team. Are you associated with Arctic fishing? Do you have expertise, experience, or information that could be relevant? Just want to chat about the topic? Please feel free to contact me @brettfavaro or at Brettfavaro at gmail.com!

PS – We can’t discuss Canadian fishing without a classic Heritage minute!

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