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Arctic fish

Irene QuaileMarch 24, 2016

As climate change melts the Arctic sea ice, industrial fishing fleets are advancing further north in search of cod. Bad news for the pristine ecosystem, says Greenpeace expert Frida Bengtsson, in an interview with DW.

Russian trawlers docked in Kirkenes on the Barents Sea (c) Getty Images/AFP/J. Karlsbakk
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Karlsbakk

DW: There has been a lot of tasty cod from the north on the market here in Europe, skrei from the Barents Sea. Why is that something we should be concerned about?

What we've seen over the years is that the cod fishery that comes from Norway and provides markets in Europe and also travels to China, North and Latin America, has been expanding further north.

So our research shows we are moving further and further north and into the Arctic. These areas have previously been covered by sea ice. Up to half the sea ice cover in the Barents Sea has disappeared since the 1980s.

If the sea ice is disappearing anyway, what's the problem with getting at the fish?

Research has just started to look at what's below the sea ice on the seabed, and we've found things they haven't found in other parts of the Barents Sea where extensive fishing has taken place for longer periods of time.

Frida Bengtsson of Greenpeace (c) Greenpeace
Bengtsson says fishing jeopardizes the Arctic ecosystemImage: Greenpeace

For example, they have found sea pens, up to fifty years of age and up to two metres in height, which is very unique. So we're calling for a precautionary approach, to not expand into these vulnerable areas but leave them alone and replace the protection the ice once offered with regulation.

So in fact you are more worried about the other species than the fish themselves?

Yes. Because we look at the size of the Barents Sea fishery, it's very big. There are over 200 factory trawlers licensed to fish in the Barents Sea, and the footprint on the ocean environment is very large. We're concerned that if this fishery is allowed to move into areas that haven't been fished before, it will have a very negative impact.

We're mostly concerned about bottom trawling, where you use heavy trawl doors that can weigh several hundred kilos to put the net out and then drag it along the seabed with chains. The creatures on the seabed are very vulnerable and soft, and when they're hit by these massive trawls they are destroyed.

What kind of preventive measures would you like to see?

We think industry should move out of this area now, and we want to see Norway step up and protect these areas. We think that's in line with what people generally want when it comes to Arctic protection. It would also mean Norway would meet their commitment towards the 2020 goals the world has set on protecting the world's oceans.

Alongside Norway, another major player in the region is Russia. Are you also targeting Russian fishing?

Sea Pen (c) picture alliance/WILDLIFE/J. Freund
Sea pens are no match for a trawling net.Image: picture alliance/WILDLIFE/J. Freund

The Barents Sea fishery is shared between Norway and Russia. But most of the fishing activity actually takes place inside Norway. So we believe that working with the Russian fisheries, the markets that they sell to and the Norwegian government, we will find the right balance.

But of course it's also going to be important to see protection happening all over these vulnerable areas. And the Russians have already acknowledged the vulnerability for their part and have noted these as sensitive areas.

There has been a new initiative by the US and Canada, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau, to safeguard the Arctic. Will that affect fishing?

We really hope so. I think it shows some good, clear leadership on Arctic protection. Now it's up to the implementation. We're hoping they will set the bar really high on protection and that fishing will be included and that areas of the Arctic will be off limits to any industrial activity, including oil and gas.

What kind of reactions have you been getting to the report?

It is very clear that people don't consider that trawling for cod in the Arctic is something that is sustainable. And I think for the industry, it's important to be at the forefront of sustainability. The indications we have from industry suggest they think it's important and they want to take preventive measures. That is very encouraging, because I think it's always good when we can work together.

At the moment we're seeing industry taking iniatives to find some solutions. That is interesting because it's in line with the same pattern we've seen in other places, for example around the soya moratorium in Brazil. There, industry agreed to take preventive measures, to not expand soya production into the Amazon.

So what about the individual consumer? If I go into a British fish and chip shop or down to the German fish market to get some fish for the weekend, is there a way I can find out if my fish is coming from an area of the Arctic it should not be coming from?

Unfortunately, today that is very difficult for a consumer. But even so, it's very important that you ask the question. If more and more consumers start asking where their fish comes from, that will lead to better labeling. We have seen initiatives in Europe where some fish is labeled, with catching area and the fishing boat, but of course that's only a very small share. We would like to see that happening with the whole of the seafood market.

Frida Bengtsson is a Greenpeace campaigner and author of the study: "This far, no further" - Fishing in the Arctic. The interview was conducted by Irene Quaile.