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The Baffin Fisheries Coalition’s Oujukoaq, a factory-freezer vessel, has a carrying capacity of 170 tons and a freezing capacity of 20 tons per day. (Baffin Fisheries Coalition)
The Baffin Fisheries Coalition’s Oujukoaq, a factory-freezer vessel, has a carrying capacity of 170 tons and a freezing capacity of 20 tons per day. (Baffin Fisheries Coalition)

Climate change opens up Arctic fisheries – but should Canada cut bait? Add to ...

Pangnirtung, a solitary hamlet of 1,500 clinging to the granite mouth of Pangnirtung Fjord in Baffin Island’s Cumberland Sound, seems like a quintessential, isolated Arctic community. Low, weather-battered board homes punctuate its dirt streets. Some are literally cabled to the ground against the wind. Often, they are cramped with people.

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“Overcrowding is a big problem,” Mayor Sakiasie Sowdlooapik tells me, speaking in his small office in a narrow corridor of the community centre. Not many here have jobs – in a typical year, six out of 10 need government support to get by.

But what separates Pangnirtung from the all-too-familiar tale of Northern underdevelopment is this: It is one of the centres of an improbable but fast-emerging Arctic fishing industry.

As one of the world’s largest fish and seafood exporters (a business worth $3.9-billion in 2010), Canada might be unique in that the potential fisheries along almost three-quarters of its coastline are largely untapped and unexplored. Until recently, those Arctic marine shores kept many of their undersea secrets well hidden beneath metres-thick ice and at harsh, impassable distances.

Now, climate in the Far North is warming twice as quickly as on the rest of the planet and formerly impenetrable seas are opening up like so many ice boxes.

Pangnirtung was once supported by sealing, but after the market for fur fell apart in the 1980s, experts from Greenland were brought here to teach the former sealers to fish through the ice for turbot, a commercially valuable fish with which few Inuit had any experience. Before long, there were not only fishers here but the largest fish-processing plant in Nunavut, which currently boasts about $4-million annually in sales, mostly to China.

Elsewhere in the Eastern Arctic, other fisheries for turbot, northern and striped shrimp and trout-like Arctic char have been gathering momentum. Turbot catches in Davis Strait and Baffin Bay have almost tripled in the past 15 years. And in some places, test fisheries have also been tried for clams, starry flounder, scallops and snow crabs.

Life has improved, Mr. Sowdlooapik says, but it’s not enough: “We need better harbours. We need better off-loading ports. We need bigger boats to bring in more fish of bigger value.”

As fishing grows, however, government scientists – the people who are supposed to be managing the fish – are scrambling to keep up. Like many undersea Arctic ecosystems and creatures, marine life in Cumberland Sound has remained inscrutable and little-known to researchers.

Meanwhile, government cuts to fisheries science have raised concerns that managers are too much in the dark about how sustainable the fishery might be.

And then there are the sharks. The sound is home to many Greenland sharks, the world’s second-largest carnivorous sharks (after the infamous great white), and large numbers of them are accidentally hooked on Pangnirtung’s turbot lines, lured by the bait.

“When they are not too tangled, sometimes you just loosen them and let them go,” Mr. Sowdlooapik says. “When they are tangled, you have to take them out” – that is, kill them.

The shark is a “near threatened” species on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It’s hard to tell, through the Arctic ice, how dire their peril is and if fishing is making it worse.

It’s a microcosm of the problem with having a flourishing “third coast” commercial fishery in Canada. Where Ottawa and Nunavut see the promise of a key piece in the long-frustrating puzzle of Arctic economic development, several leading academic researchers see potential of a different kind – the likelihood of ecological disaster.

The Arctic fishing industry is small so far, with landings worth about $75-million annually, compared with $1.4-billion on the East Coast in 2009 and $250-million in the West.

But the government of Nunavut – the vast, 13-year-old territory that occupies much of the Canadian Arctic – describes fishing as a vital pillar (alongside mining, tourism, and cultural industries) of its economic-development plan.

“We’ve got a significant fishery in the offshore right now, and it can grow,” Wayne Lynch, the Nunavut Environment Department’s director of fisheries and sealing, says in his Iqaluit office.

Mr. Lynch, a lead author of the 2005 Nunavut Fisheries Strategy, argues that the territory’s commercial fishing is “at a crossroads” where more investment and infrastructure is needed to continue its impressive growth.

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