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Ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the Arctic circle from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent on July 10, 2008.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

The Canadian government has worked to assert its military sovereignty in the Arctic, but a group of more than 2,000 international scientists is asking this country to do more to protect the fragile polar ecosystem from commercial fishing fleets.

The scientists from 67 countries, including 551 from Canada, are calling for a moratorium on commercial fishing in the Arctic until research can determine sustainable catch limits for the waters that, until recently, have been covered year-round by the polar ice cap.

The United States has such a policy, as does Denmark, though it is less rigid than that of the U.S. But the three other states with Arctic coastlines – Russia, Norway and Canada – do not.

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In a letter to be released Monday by the Pew Environment Group, the scientists point out that the loss of permanent sea ice due to global warming has opened up as much as 40 per cent of the pristine region during the summers.

It "is no more remote from major fishing ports and fishing fleets than many areas of the world to which pelagic fleets travel already," they say in the letter. "In the absence of this scientific data and a robust management system, depletion of fishery resources and damage to other components of the ecosystem are likely to result if fisheries commence."

The real concern is that countries like China, which has been seeking a more active role in the region, will send its fleets to the Arctic. The scientists say even the act of exploratory fishing could cause problems for the ecosystem.

Trevor Taylor, the policy director for the Pew's Ocean North Canada project and a former cabinet minister in Newfoundland's provincial government, said "when fishing fleets go into an area in the absence of regulations, it's very hard to get the regulations and very hard to have sustainable fisheries established before damage is done."

The five countries with Arctic coastlines have a significant say in how the region is governed, Mr. Taylor said. "But it is a high-seas area and, as such, all of the nations of the world have some right of access," he said. And "it would be very difficult to convince other states to adopt this [moratorium]when the five coastal Arctic states have not."

When federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield was asked to explain why Canada has not joined the U.S. in saying commercial fishing should wait until the research has been done, his staff turned the question over to bureaucrats in the department.

Melanie Carkner, a departmental spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that Canada agrees any potential commercial fishery in the central Arctic Ocean must be governed by effective management and conservation measures based on sound scientific advice that have the support of the international community.

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"Canada is currently engaged in a discussion with the other four Arctic Ocean coastal states, including the United States, to address all relevant issues," Ms. Carkner wrote. "We all agree on the need to know more, from a science perspective, about any potential for fish stocks to migrate/reside in the Arctic high seas."

Some fishermen, meanwhile, say they see the value in ensuring that the Arctic fishery is sustainable before the commercial fleets go in.

Larry Teague, the president of the B.C. Tuna Fishermen's Association, said he agreed with the moratorium. "It's kind of like a bull going into a china shop and stepping on things and breaking them," Mr. Teague said when asked if fishing should be permitted before the scientists have studied the region.

Commercial fisheries have created problems in every ocean in the world including the waters around Antarctica, Mr. Taylor said. "So what we are trying to do here, basically, is say for the first time in our history can we at least do it right in the Arctic Ocean."

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