Next month, representatives of the five Arctic coastal states – Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark (for Greenland) and Norway – will convene in Anchorage, Alaska for an invitation-only meeting to discuss the future of fisheries in the international waters of the Arctic Ocean.

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Speaking at the second International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) in Victoria, British Columbia last week, Henry Huntington of the Pew Environment Group pointed out that, up until now, there has been no commercial fishing industry in the so-called Arctic “donut hole” – the region of the High Arctic beyond the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of the five coastal states – because, up until now, it has been covered year-round by sea ice. That, however, is changing.

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In September 2007, when the summer sea ice extent of the Arctic Ocean fell to its lowest level on record, 40 percent of the Arctic donut hole was open water. And although summer sea ice extent has recovered somewhat subsequently, it remains substantially below recent averages and the overall trend is one of decline, so that in the three summers since 2007, the donut hole has remained partially ice-free. And although heading for the Arctic Ocean to fish may seem an onerous prospect, Huntington pointed out that, for fishing fleets from East Asia, the distance is approximately 8,000 kilometers, about two-thirds of the length of the journey fleets from that area already make to the Antarctic. For vessels from northern ports, of course, it is considerably shorter.

The reason why the existence of a donut hole is of particular concern, Huntington pointed out, is that, absent an agreed management regime, such international waters are a potential free-for-all beyond national control. As David Balton, Deputy Assistant Secretary Ambassador for Fisheries and Oceans at the U.S. State Department told IMCC, “we are worried that vessels will show up at mile 201″ – i.e. one mile beyond nation states’ EEZs – should the Arctic Ocean become permanently ice-free in summer.

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There is a precedent. A similar donut hole exists in the Bering Sea; its existence led to rampant overfishing of pollack in the area until alarm over drastic declines in pollack numbers led to a 1994 treaty to manage the fishery.

Huntington pointed out that action to protect fish and fisheries in the Bering Sea donut hole came about only after overfishing had taken place; the Arctic donut hole, he said, “does not yet have overfishing, and if we can get a management plan in place first, that would be a wonderful thing.” Dave Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, expressed a desire that that step be taken sooner rather than later: “I am quite concerned that inaction is a decision, and that if we don’t act now, we will have a situation like the Bering Sea.”

The Marine Conservation Alliance supported a 2009 decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to close all commercial fishing in waters north of the Bering Strait until a management plan was developed, a move that followed a 2008 Senate resolution supporting such a halt and which was codified as the U.S. Arctic Fishery Management Plan. Balton emphasized that the plan does not equate to a ban in the country’s Arctic waters forever, merely until there is enough science to enable Arctic fisheries to be managed.

And there, of course, is the rub. As Michael Pearson of Fisheries and Oceans Canada pointed out, when the Arctic Council was established in 1996, it did not envisage needing to include in its mandate the management of Arctic fisheries. Back then, it wasn’t an issue. Now it is, and managers and scientists are struggling to play catch-up.

“We are not in a position to know if we need a regional fishery management organization or not,” he said. “We don’t have nearly enough information. There is a need for a much greater analysis of marine ecosystems.”

The Anchorage meeting next month will be a step in that direction; but meanwhile, Arctic summer sea ice continues to diminish in thickness and extent.

“We don’t have much time,” he said. “But we do have time to establish an international agreement.”

The video at top shows the changes in Arctic sea ice coverage from 1978 to 2008. It was developed by Ignatius G. Rigor at the University of Washington, Seattle Applied Physics Lab. The pulses depict the annual expansion and contraction of the sea ice from winter to summer. The red dots represent the buoys that measure the ice. Uploaded to YouTube by Polar Bears International.

IMAGE: Map of the Arctic Fishery Management Plan of 2009 (NOAA).