At present, the Arctic Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) biodiversity working group has identified 633 marine fish species (“stocks”) harvested in the Arctic Ocean and adjacent seas (AOAS). AOAS fish species can be grouped into zoogeographic categories depending on habitat of reproduction. About 10 percent of these 633 species – 63 to be precise – are classified as “Arctic” species (as opposed to, for example, “boreal”, i.e. species exploited in sub-Arctic, boreal areas (e.g. Barents Sea and Norwegian Sea), and only 3 of these are considered commercial. Endemic Arctic fish species include cod, eelpouts, sculpins, snailfish, and others.
Areas in the Arctic Ocean and the Arctic shelves are fished less than more southern regions of the AOAS, such as the Bering Sea (with 385 species), the Norwegian Sea (with 204 species), and the Barents Sea (with 153 species), all of which support some of the world’s largest fisheries.
All Arctic species have adapted to the harsh circumpolar climate, and most – largely dwelling at the bottom of the sea (the only exception being polar cod), avoiding long-distance migration, and living in a narrow temperature range – are sensitive to changes in habitat, whether those induced by global warming, invasive species, or fishing.
At 60 percent, the majority of commercial species in the AOAS are classified as having low resilience against anthropogenic disturbances by the global species database FishBase; 24 percent are classified as having medium resilience, and only 16 percent are classified as having high resilience.
The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) established that coastal states have jurisdiction over fishing within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) – areas that stretch 200 nautical miles beyond the limits of country’s territorial seas. Sometimes the EEZs of adjacent countries enclose bits of the “high seas,” which, as international waters, lie outside of fishing jurisdictions. Any state can fish in these areas unless otherwise specified in international agreements.
Sometimes, fish spawned in the jurisdiction of one country migrate to the jurisdiction of another country and are fished by the other country’s fishermen – a phenomenon call interception. In March 1985, the United States and Canada signed the Pacific Salmon Treaty to manage cross-border harvesting through cooperation in the management of Pacific salmon stocks.
Canada banned all foreign fishing in its Arctic region as early as the 1990s and has itself never led an active fishing industry. In 2014, the country launched a management plan to maintain sustainable stocks for indigenous peoples in Arctic fisheries spanning over 800,000 kilometres of Canadian waters in the Beaufort Sea. The plan makes room for commercial fishing only as part of scientific research on stocks.
The seas around Alaska are home to all five species of Pacific salmon, four species of crab, Pacific cod, shrimp, herring, pollock, and Pacific halibut, amongst many other marine species. One of the state’s largest employers and economic drivers, Alaska’s seafood industry is the source of 60 percent of the fish produced by the United States’ commercial market. Seafood makes up over half of Alaska’s exports, generating an annual average of $3.3 million over the past decade.
The Russian Arctic has 289 known species of fish, amongst them capelin, cod, grouper, haddock, herring, mackerel, and pollock, with over 80 percent of stocks based in the Barents Sea, the Norwegian Sea, and the Greenland sea. Making up about 20 percent of its overall annual catch, Russia’s total annual catch in the Arctic is about one million metric tonnes. According to 2009-2018 data from Russia’s Federal Agency for Fishery, Russia’s catch rose from 171.3 thousand tonnes in 2012 to 258.4 thousand tonnes in the Barents Sea in 2017 and from 1.6 thousand tonnes in 2012 to 4.7 thousand tonnes in the White Sea in 2018. Russian fishermen also catch fish in the Kara Sea, where total annual catch varied from 0.2 to 0.6 thousand tonnes between 2010 and 2018; in the Chukchi Sea, where total annual catch varied from 1 tonne to 80 tonnes between 2012 to 2017; and in the Laptev Sea, where total catch amounted to around 10 tonnes in 2015. There has been no fishing in the East Siberian Sea over the past decade. Russian fishermen catch approximately 1.5-1.7 million metric tonnes of Alaska pollock annually, making it the global leader in the production of this specific type of fish. Followed by Atlantic cod, pacific cod, and herring, Alaska Pollock accounts for 53 percent of the Russia’s total fish export as the country’s main export fish.
Fisheries and aquaculture-related industries constitute 1 percent of Norway’s GDP and 1 percent of its labour market. In 2018, Norway produced $10814.6 million’s worth of fish, molluscs, and crustaceans in the amount of 4 million tonnes, 77 percent of which came from aquaculture and 23 percent came from fisheries (i.e. wild-caught fish); cod constituted 20 percent of the fish coming from Norwegian fisheries and 32 percent of its income. Generating nearly EUR7800 million in 2015, fish is the country’s second most important export product after oil.
Sweden produced 0.2 million tonnes of fish valuing USD 182.4 million in 2018 (a decrease of 4 percent since 2008), 27 percent coming from aquaculture and 73 percent coming from fisheries. Sweden is a net importer of fish, with a 104 percent increase in imports between 2008 and 2018. Sweden’s exports of fish increased by 154 in the same period; the main export destinations of fish harvested by Sweden are Poland, France, Spain, and Italy. While constituting a mere 0.10 percent of Sweden’s GDP, the fishing industry sustains over 1,100 full time equivalent employees.
Finnish fishermen caught about 153,400 tonnes of fish valuing EUR47 million in the Baltic Sea in 2015, the most important species being herring, which represented 86 percent of total catches on average. Other species include sprat, cod, and pike. Rainbow trout accounts for over 90 percent of the fish harvested through Finnish aquaculture. As of 2014, Finland’s aquaculture industry employed over 1 000 employees.
The fishing industry is both one of the pillars of Iceland’s economy, with approximately 7,500 employees – about 3.9 percent of the country’s total workforce. Iceland produced 1.3 million tonnes of fish valuing $1327.4 million in 2018, 9 percent coming from aquaculture and 91 percent coming from fisheries. Fish is one of Iceland’s main exports.
Constituting a vital source of food for domestic consumption and a significant contributor to its economy, fishing is also one of Greenland’s main industries. Representing over 95 percent of the country’s export market, fish exports generated $515 million in 2015. The majority of Greenland’s population is descended from Inuits, for whom hunting marine mammals continues to be an important cultural practice.
Coveted as a source of both meat and blubber, whales have been hunted around the world for millennia. The practice was first developed by Norwegians in the 9th century and later also appeared in the culture of Inuits and the Basques (who hunted in the Atlantic). With technological advancements, whaling became a major industry in the 17th century. There are three categories of whaling: commercial whaling, aboriginal or subsistence whaling (by indigenous people), and scientific whaling. Several countries formed the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1946 to help fight overhunting, but weak regulations and high quotas failed to reverse declining whale stocks. The organisation soon created whaling-free sanctuaries, with one in the Indian Ocean in 1979 and one in the ocean surrounding Antarctica in 1994, and a moratorium on commercial whaling that remains to this day came into effect in 1986.
Commercial whaling activities persist in Norway and Iceland, however, both of which objected to the moratorium, but the countries have set whaling quotas and have even suspended whale hunts over recent years.