Climate change opens up Arctic fisheries – but should Canada cut bait?

Pangnirtung, Nunavut — Special to The Globe and Mail

The Baffin Fisheries Coalition’s Oujukoaq, a factory-freezer vessel, has a carrying capacity of 170 tons and a freezing capacity of 20 tons per day. (Baffin Fisheries Coalition)

Pangnirtung, a solitary hamlet of 1,500 clinging to the granite mouth of Pangnirtung Fjord in Baffin Island’s Cumberland Sound, seems like a quintessential, isolated Arctic community. Low, weather-battered board homes punctuate its dirt streets. Some are literally cabled to the ground against the wind. Often, they are cramped with people.

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“Overcrowding is a big problem,” Mayor Sakiasie Sowdlooapik tells me, speaking in his small office in a narrow corridor of the community centre. Not many here have jobs – in a typical year, six out of 10 need government support to get by.

But what separates Pangnirtung from the all-too-familiar tale of Northern underdevelopment is this: It is one of the centres of an improbable but fast-emerging Arctic fishing industry.

As one of the world’s largest fish and seafood exporters (a business worth $3.9-billion in 2010), Canada might be unique in that the potential fisheries along almost three-quarters of its coastline are largely untapped and unexplored. Until recently, those Arctic marine shores kept many of their undersea secrets well hidden beneath metres-thick ice and at harsh, impassable distances.

Now, climate in the Far North is warming twice as quickly as on the rest of the planet and formerly impenetrable seas are opening up like so many ice boxes.

Pangnirtung was once supported by sealing, but after the market for fur fell apart in the 1980s, experts from Greenland were brought here to teach the former sealers to fish through the ice for turbot, a commercially valuable fish with which few Inuit had any experience. Before long, there were not only fishers here but the largest fish-processing plant in Nunavut, which currently boasts about $4-million annually in sales, mostly to China.

Elsewhere in the Eastern Arctic, other fisheries for turbot, northern and striped shrimp and trout-like Arctic char have been gathering momentum. Turbot catches in Davis Strait and Baffin Bay have almost tripled in the past 15 years. And in some places, test fisheries have also been tried for clams, starry flounder, scallops and snow crabs.

Life has improved, Mr. Sowdlooapik says, but it’s not enough: “We need better harbours. We need better off-loading ports. We need bigger boats to bring in more fish of bigger value.”

As fishing grows, however, government scientists – the people who are supposed to be managing the fish – are scrambling to keep up. Like many undersea Arctic ecosystems and creatures, marine life in Cumberland Sound has remained inscrutable and little-known to researchers.

Meanwhile, government cuts to fisheries science have raised concerns that managers are too much in the dark about how sustainable the fishery might be.

And then there are the sharks. The sound is home to many Greenland sharks, the world’s second-largest carnivorous sharks (after the infamous great white), and large numbers of them are accidentally hooked on Pangnirtung’s turbot lines, lured by the bait.

“When they are not too tangled, sometimes you just loosen them and let them go,” Mr. Sowdlooapik says. “When they are tangled, you have to take them out” – that is, kill them.

The shark is a “near threatened” species on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It’s hard to tell, through the Arctic ice, how dire their peril is and if fishing is making it worse.

It’s a microcosm of the problem with having a flourishing “third coast” commercial fishery in Canada. Where Ottawa and Nunavut see the promise of a key piece in the long-frustrating puzzle of Arctic economic development, several leading academic researchers see potential of a different kind – the likelihood of ecological disaster.

The Arctic fishing industry is small so far, with landings worth about $75-million annually, compared with $1.4-billion on the East Coast in 2009 and $250-million in the West.

But the government of Nunavut – the vast, 13-year-old territory that occupies much of the Canadian Arctic – describes fishing as a vital pillar (alongside mining, tourism, and cultural industries) of its economic-development plan.

“We’ve got a significant fishery in the offshore right now, and it can grow,” Wayne Lynch, the Nunavut Environment Department’s director of fisheries and sealing, says in his Iqaluit office.

Mr. Lynch, a lead author of the 2005 Nunavut Fisheries Strategy, argues that the territory’s commercial fishing is “at a crossroads” where more investment and infrastructure is needed to continue its impressive growth.

That is why Nunavut is pushing to build its own deep-water port (possibly at Qikiqtarjuaq on Baffin’s northeast coast) to offload and service its offshore fleet, which now must travel to Greenland to find large harbours. It also continues to lobby for bigger quotas and to search for new marketable fish to catch.

“No one thought 10 years ago that we’d be where we are,” Mr. Lynch says, buoyantly. “It’s got a long way to go yet too.”

Oceanography professor Louis Fortier bristles at that suggestion. “In my opinion, there’s no Klondike there,” he says from his desk at Laval University. “I know they think they are going for the gold mine, but they are wasting their time.”

Prof. Fortier, who is among Canada’s pre-eminent Arctic marine scientists, leads the $110-million national network known as ArcticNet. He spearheaded efforts a decade ago to retrofit the Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard ship, as a dedicated research icebreaker for the North.

He is also one of a number of researchers who want to see large-scale commercial fishing in the ecologically delicate seas above the 60th parallel stopped before it grows.

“We need a moratorium on any development of big fisheries in the Arctic,” he argues – leaving only traditional, small-scale fishing. “[But] with the usual procrastination of the DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and the federal government, it has never been done.”

Nunavut’s fishing ambitions do appear to be out of step with other jurisdictions in the North American Arctic. In 2009, for instance, Gary Locke, then U.S. commerce secretary, cited the need for a “precautionary approach” when he announced a U.S. ban on all new industrial-scale fishing north of Alaska for the next few years.

More recently, 2,000 scientists signed a letter urging a similar moratorium in the international Arctic waters just beyond Canada’s jurisdiction.

And last year, the Inuvialuit of Canada’s Western Arctic pushed for – and got – an agreement with Ottawa to effectively declare the vast Beaufort Sea off-limits to commercial fishing in the near term. “The Inuvialuit saw examples around the world of collapses of commercial fisheries because of overfishing,” explains Burton Ayles of the Joint Fisheries Management Committee that oversees Western Arctic fisheries.

Dalhousie University marine-biology professor Boris Worm has studied many of those collapses. In the journal Science a few years ago, Prof. Worm predicted that large-scale fishing would drive the last of the world’s commercial fish and seafood stocks to ruin by 2048. He is less pessimistic now (“the situation is more complex”), but he continues to fear for sensitive environments such as the Arctic.

Knowledge gaps are common, Prof. Worm says, and fishing boats are sailing right through them. Greenland sharks, for instance, are “virtually unknown in their life history,” he says. “One pregnant female has been observed in all of science.”

A similar lack of life-cycle information applies to many other creatures, from obscure sea sponges to the turbot, char and shrimp targeted by the industry.

“If this was a very abundant, very productive ecosystem with a high resilience to disturbance, I would be less concerned,” Prof Worm says. “But, from all we know, these tend to be very complex, poorly understood, somewhat fragile ecosystems and resources, and I think we either do good science on them or we leave them alone.”

There, especially, is the rub: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, responsible for managing Arctic fish, has suffered a series of deep budget cuts recently – including a $79.3-million rollback over the next three years announced in March. Many are concerned federal research is now languishing.

“A DFO colleague just a few weeks ago told me in these very words, ‘DFO science, as we know it, is dying,’ ” Prof. Worm says. “And to me, this is the alarm bell: Canada certainly is very good at saying all the right things, but in the absence of information, this is not quite possible. You need to understand something before you can manage it, and the Arctic is very poorly understood.”

From her Fisheries and Ocean Canada office in Winnipeg, Michelle Wheatley, director of science for the central and Arctic region, fashions her words carefully: “I’m not in a position or authorized to enter into discussions on the budget cuts, but I can say that science is essential to the business we do, and we are continuing to build our scientific knowledge.”

Managing fisheries in the Arctic follows a government protocol known as the Emerging Fisheries Policy, Dr. Wheatley says. That means regularly monitoring target fish as well as other species. Ongoing research includes annual multi-species surveys in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait as well as gathering shrimp data and char catch numbers from fishing vessels or by sampling. It adds up to a go-slow approach to fisheries development, she explains.

Whether the next three years of cutbacks will mean substantially less science for the Arctic is a question Dr. Wheatley “can’t speak to.” But she says there is some new federal money. Though hardly large amounts, the funds will help to identify Arctic undersea areas most at risk from climate change and pay for international and fisheries boundary projects.

“We will never be able to do everything,” she says. “There’s always more information that could be collected.”

Mr. Lynch, Nunavut’s fisheries director, is not so philosophical. “DFO is walking away from a lot of science and research in Nunavut, which is a shame,” he says. “The problem is that we’re at the tail end of a lot of DFO programs that have really helped fisheries on the East and West Coast. … The programs are ending, and we’re just getting started.”

Nunavut has been developing its own science program, Mr. Lynch says. Last year, for instance, it launched a 64-foot research vessel to explore new fishing grounds as well as conduct other science, such as work (with DFO researchers and others) to reduce the incidental catch of Greenland sharks.

“You can’t have a sustainable fishery without good science. We know that,” Mr. Lynch insists. Any suggestion that the Eastern Arctic fishery is reckless and should be stopped is simply irresponsible, he says.

“We’ve got a growing population in Nunavut looking for nutritional food sources as well as employment. How can you not?” he argues. “It’s like telling a developing country you can’t farm because you’re hurting the land. To me, there’s got to be a balance,” he continues.

“I think you have to walk in another person’s shoes before you can make blanket statements about stopping every development in Baffin Bay. That’s just silliness. It’s just silly. People have been whaling and sealing here for millennia.”

Back in Pangnirtung, talk around the Auyuittuq Lodge – the town’s only hotel, a few steps away from the mayor’s office – is more about the not-yet-finished harbour than about the adequacy of fisheries science.

Under the lodge’s wide windows facing the towering cliffs of the fjord, a few locals are gathered for coffee. The winter-fishing season went particularly well (thanks to solid, lasting ice) and some are musing about whether a significant summer fishery might also soon be in the cards.

The town’s new small-craft harbour, which could be completed as soon as this autumn, is expected to help accommodate a summertime fishing fleet in Cumberland Sound. The project is being paid for, in part, through a $25-million investment from Ottawa – Prime Minister Stephen Harper trumpeted Arctic fishing’s great economic potential when he visited the community in 2009.

With active summer fishing, production at the Pangnirtung Fisheries Ltd. plant could almost double. “That’s really where the fishery should be heading, and it is heading there,” says general manager Don Cunningham.

For scientists who argue a flourishing Arctic fishery is ecologically risky and possibly a disaster, none of this will sound like good news. But the Arctic can be a land of stark choices.

“The truth is,” Mr. Cunningham says, “there just aren’t a lot of other options up here for people.”

Peter Christie is a science writer based in Kingston, Ont.