Can Russia’s Arctic deliver on big fishing promises?

Climate change is causing significant reduction in Arctic ice totals, opening vast areas of the world’s northern seas to transportation and fishing. According to research from the Arctic Council's Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, the Arctic may be ice-free as soon as 2030, though other research suggests that it will happen by 2040.  

Russia, which possesses the largest coastline of the five nations with a presence in the Arctic, is viewing the opening of these formerly foreboding and inaccessible waters as an economic windfall. Besides opening access to a new shipping route between the Pacific and the Atlantic, the Russian government believes a thawing Arctic Ocean could present a potentially lucrative fishing opportunity.

In its recently adopted Strategy for Fisheries Development, a document that guides Russian fishing effort through 2030, Russia has invested in research to study the possible increase of its fishing in the country’s Arctic waters. 

Understanding Russia's Arctic

The waters of the Arctic can be divided into two zones. The first zone consists of the national waters, of five Arctic countries: The U.S.A., Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark. The second one is a 2.8 million-square-kilometer area of international waters that compose the central part of the Arctic Ocean, where the five Arctic countries, joined by a handful of other nations with economic interests in the region, agreed in December 2017 to temporarily ban fishing. 

Russia’s part of the Arctic can also be divded into two zones, with a significant part of the Barents Sea and the waters of the Norway and Greenland seas having proven fisheries, while the East Siberian, Laptev, Kara, and Chukchee seas are rarely fished and poorly researched.

In the entire Russian Arctic, there are 289 known species of fish, with more than 80 percent stocks located in the Barents, Norway, and Greenland seas. Russia’s total annual catch in its Arctic region is about one million metric tons (MT) of cod, haddock, pollock, capelin, poutassou, herring, grouper, and mackerel. That represents about 20 percent of the country’s catch as a whole – in 2017, national fisheries caught nearly 4.7 million MT, according to the Russia’s Federal Agency for Fisheries.

Denis Belyaev, the head of the Russian Fishery Agency’s northwestern branch, gave a speech at the Arctic Forum in December 2017, acknowledging that climate change had already considerably affected distribution of fish stocks in the Arctic. If global warming continues unabated, the northern and northeastern parts of the Barents Sea, which border with the central part of the Arctic Ocean, will become more attractive for fishing because of fish migration, he said. The warming will also create good conditions for halibut, cod, haddock, and Arctic cod in the Kara Sea, Belyeav said. And he added that from his agency’s point of view, the most prospective underdeveloped area of the Russian Arctic is the eastern part of the Chukchee Sea. 

But in addition to his optimism on how fishing yields may get a boost from climate change, Belyaev added a warning that global warming is bringing not only opportunities, but also risks, as the influence of climate change on the migration processes of pelagic fish and phytoplankton and zooplankton has not been thoroughly researched. 

Warming could be bad for fish

The belief that, once freed from ice, the Russian Arctic will be a boon to fishing companies is being questioned by some scientists, who have adopted a more skeptical tone. 

Alexander Glubokov, the deputy director of the All-Russian Research Institute of Fishery and Oceanography, said in an interview with online publication Utro that the East Siberian, Laptev, Kara, and Chukchee seas have rather poor stocks. 

“There is no chance that the catch there can be as much as one million MT,” he said. “In the long term, a few dozen of thousands MT can be caught only.”

He added that this catch will consist mainly of Arctic cod, which will be useful primarily as an input for aquaculture feeds.  

The thesis of migration of fish from other areas to newly ice-free waters was explored by scientists of the Murmansk Marine Biology Institute during a 2017 expedition to Russia’ Arctic waters. The institute’s deputy director, Pavel Makarevich, told to the TASS news agency that the scientists found that melting of ice doesn’t bring more flora and fauna in the freed waters. 

The explanation of the phenomenon is simple, he said. The ice serves as to store vast reserves of plankton, which currently become frozen into the ice in the winter and are released into water during warmer periods, when they are fed upon by fish. No ice means no plankton, which in its turn means no fish, Makarevich said. Moreover, the Murmansk-based institute’s representative said he thinks that the melting of ice is a reversible process, and that the ice may return in the future.

Politics trumping science?

Despite the lack of scientific research proving the existence of significant yields in terms of catch and profitability, Russia’s expansion of fishing into its northern waters is all but guaranteed in coming years. 

In 2013, the Russian government worked out a state-financed program through 2025 for the development of the Arctic region, aimed at building transportation infrastructure, developing oil and gas reserves, and increasing shipping via the Northern Sea Passage. The program, which is under personal control of President Vladimir Putin, has a budget of RUB 12 billion (USD 210 million, EUR 171 million) through 2020. In April 2017, Putin ordered the government to speed up the plan’s implementation. The Arctic continues to be a focus of Putin’s: On 1 March, 2018, he mentioned the need to pay special attention to the region in his address to the Russian Parliament. 

This year, a special bill “On the development of the Arctic,” is projected to be adopted and signed by Putin. His reelection on 18 March all but assures the project will be approved.

Yet a lack of knowledge of whether the effect of climate change will prove to be a benefit or a threat to the country’s Arctic fisheries means Putin’s bet is no sure thing. Even with all the government’s optimism over the potential of Russia’s northern seas, it still remains to be seen whether the region’s fishing yields will make the country’s investments worthwhile. 


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