Clear 34° Good Afternoon
Clear 34° Good Afternoon

Highleyman: Nations can join to protect melting Arctic

a ringed seal looks out of a snow

a ringed seal looks out of a snow cave on the ice off of Barrow, Alaska. An environmental group is suing to list ringed seals, the main prey of polar bears, as a threatened species because of diminishing Arctic Ocean sea ice. (April 30, 2001) Photo Credit: AP

September marks the low point each year for melting sea ice in the Arctic, and this year has already broken the mark reached in 2007. Unlike those set in the summer Olympics, however, this record spells bad news for the Central Arctic Ocean, where newly open water is likely to attract industrial fishing fleets to a region without any rules governing the catch.

For all of human history, the Central Arctic Ocean has been covered with permanent sea ice. The region's remarkable species -- whales, seals, polar bears, walrus, seabirds, and fish found nowhere else on Earth -- adapted and thrived in this icy seascape. The rich marine ecosystem has also supported vibrant Inuit and other indigenous communities uniquely adapted to an ice-based environment. Today, 4 million people inhabit the Arctic.

Increased melting, however, means that permanent ice is being replaced by seasonal ice and open water. An ecosystem built on permanent ice is starting to restructure itself in ways never before witnessed. Arctic species will adapt or diminish, and sub-Arctic species could find their way north to fill ecological niches. No one can predict the result.

What is certain is that industry is pushing into newly melted waters. Most new industrial activity will take place in the areas of ocean under the jurisdiction of Arctic countries. But a very large expanse of open water is emerging from the ice each summer north of Alaska, just beyond the 200-mile maritime boundary of Russia, the United States, and Canada. Much of this region contains relatively shallow water over a continental shelf, the type of fishing ground targeted by industrial fishing fleets around the world.

Without rules to govern these massive vessels, the Central Arctic Ocean is threatened by overfishing. Moreover, the lack of scientific knowledge about how the Arctic ecosystem is changing increases this risk. Even moderate fishing of a keystone species such as Arctic cod creates the danger of unpredictable ripples up the food web for seals, birds, whales, and polar bears.

Fortunately, a simple solution is available. Arctic countries should draft an international agreement preventing the start of industrial fishing in the high seas of the Central Arctic Ocean until scientific research and rules are in place to ensure that it can be done sustainably.

With the leadership of the five Arctic coastal countries -- Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway and Greenland -- major fishing countries from beyond the Arctic also could be persuaded to sign. Because fishing hasn't started yet, no jobs would be lost. All interested countries could participate in joint research on Arctic ecology to learn about the changes occurring in these waters.

Four months ago, more than 2,000 scientists from around the globe called for just such an agreement. The United States, Greenland and Canada have expressed support. Discussions in Russia and Norway about the need for an agreement will take place in the next month. If Arctic countries join together, they can protect the region from substantial environmental harm.

In the next few weeks, scientists will report on the extent of the new record set for ice melting at the top of the globe. In the next few months, Arctic countries could deliver some rare good news about fixing one of the problems created by this loss of sea ice. If they do, they will deserve an environmental gold medal.

Writer Scott Highleyman directs the Pew Environment Group's International Arctic Program. Readers may write to him at Pew Environment Group, 901 E Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20036; email: