New protection for vulnerable Arctic habitats

Chris Yesson

I am pleased to report that the Greenland Ministry of Fisheries have introduced new regulations to the West Greenland Coldwater Prawn fishery, that will help protect the seabed Melville Bay, Greenland.

Melville Bay is at the northern limit of the prawn fishery, around 1000km inside the Arctic circle. In recent years we have seen a migration of stocks northwards, probably in response to rising sea temperatures. Unsurprisingly, the industry wants to follow and continue taking these stocks (the prawn fishery accounts for an astonishing 40-50% of Greenland’s exports). However, this means moving into areas that have seen very little fishing activity in the past, which could threaten vulnerable seabed habitats.

Research conducted by myself, colleagues at Institute of Zoology, and our collaborators at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (particularly Martin Blicher), has helped to document and map seabed habitats in the area. Our survey of Melville Bay in September 2016 observed vulnerable benthic organisms. This includes: an unusual carnivorous sponge Chondrocladia, which traps and digests small shrimp in its bulbous branches; and the beautiful but delicate Umbellula sea pens, known by fishermen as seaflowers because of their long ‘stalk-like’ rachis and ‘flower-like’ polyp-heads, these highly adapted corals live in soft seabed and can grow to more than a metre high, but are prone to snagging in fishing nets (see videos).

Trawling can have serious negative impact potentially damaging or destroying life on the seabed. Our advice to decision makers was that habitats with vulnerable indicator species such as seapens should be protected from trawling.

New regulations have been agreed after consultation between the Greenland government and Sustainable Fisheries Greenland (SFG - a consortium of Greenlandic fishers). These regulations introduce new closures for the fisheries that will protect vulnerable seabed habitats for years to come. The regulations stipulate that trawling will be restricted to areas where previous trawling has occurred (see map). Importantly, a precautionary principle is applied so that any expansion of the fishery beyond the fishing areas (excluding the strictly off-limits closures) requires government approval.

Melville Bay Fishing Regulations
Melville Bay Fishing Regulations

I’m really encouraged by this positive outcome that will help protect vulnerable habitats while allowing the fishery to continue its economically important activity. This result is due to the positive engagement of the fisheries with a desire to act responsibly and operate sustainably, coupled with researchers independently evaluating the impact of commercial activities and providing evidence based advice. Long may it continue!

Find out more about ZSL's work in West Greenland 

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