Climate change is melting Arctic sea ice, opening new fishing grounds. In response to a Greenpeace campaign, the fishing industry has voluntarily imposed a ban on expanding trawling to previously ice-covered areas.
Some of the world's largest seafood and fishing companies have committed to not expanding their search for cod into a large, previously ice-covered area of the northern Barents Sea, off the coasts of Norway and Russia.
The group includes fast-food giant McDonald's, supermarket chains such as Tesco, and popular brands like Iglo, Birds Eye, Icelandic Seachill and Fiskebat. This represents the entire Norwegian ocean-going fishing fleet and Europe's largest processor of frozen fish, Espersen. The Russian Karat Group also signed up.
The agreement was brokered by Greenpeace, which says it marks the first time the seafood industry has voluntarily imposed limitations on industrial fishing in the Arctic. The conservation group says the agreement ensures that any fishing companies expanding into pristine Arctic waters will not be able to sell their cod to major seafood brands and retailers.
In the agreement, the industry acknowledges that climate change and the melting of ice in the region have "caused concern related to fishing activities in the vast area around Svalbard."
The sea ice cover reached a record low this winter, leaving large areas of water open for longer periods.
"We have agreed that from the 2016 season, the catching sector will not expand their cod fishing activities with trawl gear into those areas where regular fishing has not taken place before," the industry group said in a statement.
The agreement is described as a "precautionary measure." Currently, there is no specific legal framework in place to protect Arctic areas that were previously covered by sea ice.
Greenpeace campaigner Frida Bengtsson welcomed the move, saying this would help to safeguard a huge marine area in the Arctic: "In the absence of significant legal protection of the icy waters of the northern Barents Sea, this is an unprecedented step from the seafood industry."
Bengtsson told DW in an interview that global, well-known food brands and retailers buying cod from the Barents Sea would risk their reputations if trawlers advanced into previously unfished, pristine ice-covered regions.
The agreement indicates increasing corporate interest in sustainability, which appeals to consumers. Klaus Nielsen, CEO of the fish giant Espersen, told DW his company had helped coordinate the joint statement between the industry and Greenpeace.
"Sustainable fisheries are a must for our industry, and we agree with the need for a precautionary approach to fishing in the areas around Svalbard," Nielsen said. He stressed that Espersen would continue its involvement by help to establish a high-level roundtable that will bring together relevant authorities, stakeholders and scientists, "to find the right balance between environmental protection and fishing activities."
Keith Kenny, Vice President of Sustainability at McDonald’s Corporation told DW the company was taking what he called a landmark step to protect the oceans by strengthening its commitment to sustainable fishing.
“Specifically, because we require our fish suppliers to follow sustainable fishing practices, we will not serve fish caught in the areas of the Barents and Norwegian seas defined by this agreement. This commitment, which is effective immediately, will continue until there is robust and independent scientific research that demonstrates fishing activities in the area will not cause serious harm to the marine environment".
Kenny said McDonalds was proud of its role in bringing about the agreement in collaboration with Greenpeace and several of the world’s largest seafood and fishing companies.
Greenpeace campaigner Bengtsson compared the commitment by the fish industry to a move by soy producers in Brazil. "Industry agreed to take preventive measures, to not expand soya production into the Amazon - and for us this is a very similar case, to not expand industrial fisheries into the Arctic."
Long-term Arctic ecosystem protection
Bengtsson was a key author of a report issued by Greenpeace in March, revealing that melting Arctic sea ice has made it possible for large trawlers to venture into previously ice-covered and "ecologically significant" areas.
The region includes the Svalbard archipelago, also known as the "Arctic Galapagos," and is home to animals vulnerable to climate change, including the polar bear, bowhead whale and Greenland shark.
Bengtsson told DW there are more than 200 factory trawlers licensed to fish in the Barents Sea. Conservationists are particularly concerned about bottom trawling, which has a destructive effect on the seabed and marine life there.
The Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise will be in to the Arctic region to keep watch over areas now off-limits to insure that the fishing industry meets the commitments of the new agreement.
At the same time, Bengtsson called on the Norwegian government in particular to "catch up with the companies and protect the Arctic for the long term."
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity obliges Norway to protect at least 10 percent of its marine areas by 2020. So far, Greenpeace says less than 1 percent has been put under protection.
The area which the industry has now declared out-of-bounds is about twice the size of France.