More than 2,000 scientists from 67 nations have signed an open letter calling for the development of an international fisheries agreement that would protect the waters of the Central Arctic Ocean. The letter was released by the Pew Environment Group on the opening day of the International Polar Year conference in Montreal.

As Pew's Henry Huntington pointed out at the Second International Marine Conservation Congress in Victoria, British Columbia, last May, there has to this point 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 of the five Arctic coastal states (Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States). The reason for that, simply, is that, until very recently, it has been covered year-round by sea ice. That, however, is changing.

ANALYSIS: A New Fisheries Frontier in the Arctic

Indeed, in September 2007, when the summer sea ice extent of the Arctic Ocean fell to its lowest level on record, fully 40 percent of the Arctic donut hole was open water.

The reason 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. 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.

ANALYSIS: Arctic Ocean Said To Be Seriously Overfished

Hence the scientists' letter, which noted that, although, "a commercial fishery in the central Arctic Ocean is now possible and feasible":

The ability to fish is not the same as having the scientific information and management regimes needed for a well-managed fishery. 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. In the absence of this scientific data and a robust management system, depletion of fishery resources and damage to other components of the ecosystem are likely to result if fisheries commence [...]
Now is the time for the international community to create a precautionary management system for central Arctic Ocean fisheries. Such a system should postpone fishing activity until such time as the biology and ecology of the region are understood sufficiently well to allow for setting scientifically sound catch levels. Such a system should also require that a robust management, monitoring, and enforcement regime be established before fishing is allowed. This system should be put in place before sea ice retreats farther, before fishing begins and political pressure increases, and before precautionary management is no longer an option.

The United States closed its Arctic waters to commercial fishing in 2009 to allow scientists to assess the evolving environment, a move that followed a 2008 Senate resolution supporting such a halt and which was codified as the U.S. Arctic Fishery Management Plan. Canada is drafting its own fisheries policy for the adjoining Beaufort Sea.

NEWS: BP-like Spill in Arctic Would Be Disastrous

Photo: A man pilots sailing yacht Arctica through dense sea ice. Credit: Corbis.