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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 ...

That is why Nunavut is pushing to build its own deep-water port (possibly at Qikiqtarjuaq on Baffin’s northeast coast) to offload and service its offshore fleet, which now must travel to Greenland to find large harbours. It also continues to lobby for bigger quotas and to search for new marketable fish to catch.

“No one thought 10 years ago that we’d be where we are,” Mr. Lynch says, buoyantly. “It’s got a long way to go yet too.”

Oceanography professor Louis Fortier bristles at that suggestion. “In my opinion, there’s no Klondike there,” he says from his desk at Laval University. “I know they think they are going for the gold mine, but they are wasting their time.”

Prof. Fortier, who is among Canada’s pre-eminent Arctic marine scientists, leads the $110-million national network known as ArcticNet. He spearheaded efforts a decade ago to retrofit the Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard ship, as a dedicated research icebreaker for the North.

He is also one of a number of researchers who want to see large-scale commercial fishing in the ecologically delicate seas above the 60th parallel stopped before it grows.

“We need a moratorium on any development of big fisheries in the Arctic,” he argues – leaving only traditional, small-scale fishing. “[But] with the usual procrastination of the DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and the federal government, it has never been done.”

Nunavut’s fishing ambitions do appear to be out of step with other jurisdictions in the North American Arctic. In 2009, for instance, Gary Locke, then U.S. commerce secretary, cited the need for a “precautionary approach” when he announced a U.S. ban on all new industrial-scale fishing north of Alaska for the next few years.

More recently, 2,000 scientists signed a letter urging a similar moratorium in the international Arctic waters just beyond Canada’s jurisdiction.

And last year, the Inuvialuit of Canada’s Western Arctic pushed for – and got – an agreement with Ottawa to effectively declare the vast Beaufort Sea off-limits to commercial fishing in the near term. “The Inuvialuit saw examples around the world of collapses of commercial fisheries because of overfishing,” explains Burton Ayles of the Joint Fisheries Management Committee that oversees Western Arctic fisheries.

Dalhousie University marine-biology professor Boris Worm has studied many of those collapses. In the journal Science a few years ago, Prof. Worm predicted that large-scale fishing would drive the last of the world’s commercial fish and seafood stocks to ruin by 2048. He is less pessimistic now (“the situation is more complex”), but he continues to fear for sensitive environments such as the Arctic.

Knowledge gaps are common, Prof. Worm says, and fishing boats are sailing right through them. Greenland sharks, for instance, are “virtually unknown in their life history,” he says. “One pregnant female has been observed in all of science.”

A similar lack of life-cycle information applies to many other creatures, from obscure sea sponges to the turbot, char and shrimp targeted by the industry.

“If this was a very abundant, very productive ecosystem with a high resilience to disturbance, I would be less concerned,” Prof Worm says. “But, from all we know, these tend to be very complex, poorly understood, somewhat fragile ecosystems and resources, and I think we either do good science on them or we leave them alone.”

There, especially, is the rub: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, responsible for managing Arctic fish, has suffered a series of deep budget cuts recently – including a $79.3-million rollback over the next three years announced in March. Many are concerned federal research is now languishing.

“A DFO colleague just a few weeks ago told me in these very words, ‘DFO science, as we know it, is dying,’ ” Prof. Worm says. “And to me, this is the alarm bell: Canada certainly is very good at saying all the right things, but in the absence of information, this is not quite possible. You need to understand something before you can manage it, and the Arctic is very poorly understood.”

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