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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 ...

From her Fisheries and Ocean Canada office in Winnipeg, Michelle Wheatley, director of science for the central and Arctic region, fashions her words carefully: “I’m not in a position or authorized to enter into discussions on the budget cuts, but I can say that science is essential to the business we do, and we are continuing to build our scientific knowledge.”

Managing fisheries in the Arctic follows a government protocol known as the Emerging Fisheries Policy, Dr. Wheatley says. That means regularly monitoring target fish as well as other species. Ongoing research includes annual multi-species surveys in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait as well as gathering shrimp data and char catch numbers from fishing vessels or by sampling. It adds up to a go-slow approach to fisheries development, she explains.

Whether the next three years of cutbacks will mean substantially less science for the Arctic is a question Dr. Wheatley “can’t speak to.” But she says there is some new federal money. Though hardly large amounts, the funds will help to identify Arctic undersea areas most at risk from climate change and pay for international and fisheries boundary projects.

“We will never be able to do everything,” she says. “There’s always more information that could be collected.”

Mr. Lynch, Nunavut’s fisheries director, is not so philosophical. “DFO is walking away from a lot of science and research in Nunavut, which is a shame,” he says. “The problem is that we’re at the tail end of a lot of DFO programs that have really helped fisheries on the East and West Coast. … The programs are ending, and we’re just getting started.”

Nunavut has been developing its own science program, Mr. Lynch says. Last year, for instance, it launched a 64-foot research vessel to explore new fishing grounds as well as conduct other science, such as work (with DFO researchers and others) to reduce the incidental catch of Greenland sharks.

“You can’t have a sustainable fishery without good science. We know that,” Mr. Lynch insists. Any suggestion that the Eastern Arctic fishery is reckless and should be stopped is simply irresponsible, he says.

“We’ve got a growing population in Nunavut looking for nutritional food sources as well as employment. How can you not?” he argues. “It’s like telling a developing country you can’t farm because you’re hurting the land. To me, there’s got to be a balance,” he continues.

“I think you have to walk in another person’s shoes before you can make blanket statements about stopping every development in Baffin Bay. That’s just silliness. It’s just silly. People have been whaling and sealing here for millennia.”

Back in Pangnirtung, talk around the Auyuittuq Lodge – the town’s only hotel, a few steps away from the mayor’s office – is more about the not-yet-finished harbour than about the adequacy of fisheries science.

Under the lodge’s wide windows facing the towering cliffs of the fjord, a few locals are gathered for coffee. The winter-fishing season went particularly well (thanks to solid, lasting ice) and some are musing about whether a significant summer fishery might also soon be in the cards.

The town’s new small-craft harbour, which could be completed as soon as this autumn, is expected to help accommodate a summertime fishing fleet in Cumberland Sound. The project is being paid for, in part, through a $25-million investment from Ottawa – Prime Minister Stephen Harper trumpeted Arctic fishing’s great economic potential when he visited the community in 2009.

With active summer fishing, production at the Pangnirtung Fisheries Ltd. plant could almost double. “That’s really where the fishery should be heading, and it is heading there,” says general manager Don Cunningham.

For scientists who argue a flourishing Arctic fishery is ecologically risky and possibly a disaster, none of this will sound like good news. But the Arctic can be a land of stark choices.

“The truth is,” Mr. Cunningham says, “there just aren’t a lot of other options up here for people.”

Peter Christie is a science writer based in Kingston, Ont.

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