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Exploiting An Ice-Free Arctic Ocean

April 25, 2012

Among the many disappointing truisms of human history: if there is a way to commercialize nature, nature will be commercialized.

That’s a dynamic that thousands of scientists are trying to stop, at least when it comes to industrial fishing in the Arctic Ocean. As global warming slowly pushes back, and even eliminates, the summer ice cover, it is opening up pristine waters and fish stocks that are barely understood to fleets of fishing boats that are eager for new fishing grounds.

In an effort to preempt the inevitable gold rush, the scientific community is pleading for caution:

Thousands of scientists from 67 countries have called for an international agreement to close the Arctic high seas to commercial fishing until research reveals more about the freshly exposed waters.

Recent Arctic sea-ice retreat during the summer months has opened up some of the waters that fall outside of the exclusive economic zones of the nations that circle the polar ocean. In all, more than 2.8 million square kilometres make up these international waters, which some scientists say could be ice free during summer months within 10–15 years. Although industrial fishing hasn’t yet occurred in the northernmost part of the Arctic, the lack of regulation may make it an appealing target for international commercial-fishing vessels.

“The science community currently does not have sufficient biological information to understand the presence, abundance, structure, movements, and health of fish stocks and the role they play in the broader ecosystem of the central Arctic Ocean,” says the letter, which was released by the Pew Environment Group on Sunday on the eve of the opening of the International Polar Year 2012 scientific conference in Montreal, Canada. More than 2,000 scientists, including 1,328 from Arctic coastal countries, signed the letter.

Keep an eye on this. It will be a good indicator of whether we have the capacity to learn and change, and elevate conservation and science to balance pure commercialism. But if you take any bets on it, make sure you are offered some serious odds.

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