Global Agreement Freezes Commercial Fishing in Arctic Ocean

13 December 2017 Benjamin Walsh, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


The Arctic Ocean is warming faster than almost any region on the planet. States, such as the US and Russia, that have a stake in maintaining a presence in the Arctic for both strategic and commercial reasons, have been monitoring the region for newly created shipping lanes and fishing grounds made possible by thawing ice. The latter has been the focus of a recently-signed moratorium on fishing by the US, Russia, China, the European Union, Japan, Iceland, Denmark and South Korea. The deal is the culmination of ten years of diplomacy and prevents fishing companies from operating in the high seas part of the central Arctic Ocean for the next 16 years. Stakeholders are determined to avoid the policy mistakes that were made in the Bering Sea in the 1980s by implementing preventative policies before, instead of after, years of overfishing.


The Arctic agreement has been a work in progress for around ten years; however, the need to pre-empt Arctic overfishing was inspired by the experiences gained by US and Russian fisheries in the Bering Sea in the 1980s. At a time of easing relations, Soviet and US fishing companies, through the Marine Resources Company (MRC), captured and processed 1.8 million metric tons of groundfish from 1978 to 1991. By the late 1970s, foreign fishing in Alaskan waters had already amounted to around two million metric tons with the added prospect of more fish residing in the Pacific than the amount of fish entering the US as a whole. An unsustainable number of fishing vessels entering older fisheries had resulted in overcrowding and the financial and construction obligations required in these fisheries were beginning to show signs of significant stress. Eyes were thus cast to the Bering Sea.

After years of lobbying and negotiations, a joint US-Soviet venture began and lasted until the demise of the Soviet Union. Regulatory bodies were created to monitor fishing in Alaskan waters. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) was set up in the late 1970s to regulate the capture of groundfish in Alaskan waters, the principal marine resource the venture aimed to exploit. Though the NCPFMC was hailed as a regulatory victory, it was not until after the cessation of US-Soviet fishing and the effects of overfishing had become apparent that, strangely, the body earned this accolade. The mid-1990s saw a delayed prevention of new ships from participating in groundfishing entirely and, in 1990, a decade after the US and the Soviets began fishing off Alaska, they introduced Total Allowable Catches (TACs) that targeted US businesses but excluded foreign and joint ventures. This was a relatively superfluous policy given Russia’s sudden aversion to foreign ventures after 1990 and the MRC shifting operations to fleet repairs and modernisation.

The over-exploitation of crabs was another issue belatedly addressed by the NPFMC. In 2001 the NPFMC began to entertain policy ideas that sought to regulate crabbing, but it was not until 2005 that a policy was finally agreed upon and TACs were implemented alongside Individual Fishing Quotas to regulate crabbing. These kinds of preventative policies could have been more useful had they been applied before over-crabbing began. It was during the 1980s that crab populations declined, leading many to believe in the possibility of an irreversible deterioration in crab supplies. The 1980-81 season registered king crab production around 200 million pounds, but production dropped to 25 million pounds in the 1983-84 season. A New York Times article, written in 1983, stated that the Fish and Game Department had been told by the State Board of Fisheries to maximise crabbing operations in the Bering Sea for the last four to five years; more crabs were taken from the Bering Sea in the 1974-1980 period than from 1953-73.

Overfishing did not start and stop with the joint US-Soviet ventures of the 1980s. Modern policymakers and stakeholders are keen to avoid a repeat of the deterioration of marine populations that occurred in the 1980s. Arctic powers are today determined to prevent the kind of overdue response the NPFMC and other authorities gave to the Bering Sea. As the US ambassador for oceans and fisheries, David Bolton, puts it: ‘This is one of the rare times when a group of governments actually solved a problem before it happened.’

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