Fishing in the Arctic

Chris Yesson

For the past five years ZSL's research fellow Dr. Christopher Yesson has been back and forth between the Arctic Circle and ZSL, as part of a team independently investigating the impact of West Greenland's northern shrimp fishery on the seabed habitats living there. 

The project has been carried out as part of the process for the fishery to gain important certification for sustainability from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and will be shared in full at our debate, Fishing in the Arctic - is there a sustainable approach?

Fishing in the Arctic
Retreating ice has opened up new areas for fishing and raises alarms over sustainability
Ths is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.

For the past five years I've been working on a project examining the impact of trawling on the seabed in West Greenland.  

The West Greenland Cold Water Prawn fishery uses otter trawls to catch northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis) and has been operating since the 1950s. This trawl fishery drag nets, chains, rubber wheels (called rockhoppers) and trawl doors, which can be 1/2 ton of steel, along the sea bed, typically at depths of 200-500m. These must create local disturbance to the sea bed.

Our new study "The impact of trawling on the epibenthic megafauna of the West Greenland shelf", based on five years of seabed surveys in West Greenland, shows that benthic diversity is affected by the amount of trawling in the area, but that other factors such as seabed temperature and natural disturbance from iceberg scouring also shape what we see on the sea bed.  

It is encouraging to see that the areas with highest coldwater prawn density are mostly muddy seabed, and these areas show some resilience to trawling impacts. 

However, we found that rocky habitats are more affected by trawling. This is not surprising as many large, habitat forming organisms, such as sponges and coral, are permanently attached to rocks. Trawling can physically damage these fragile organisms and/or remove them from the area.

Nevertheless, we have some encouraging observations from this year's research cruise, which took us 1000km inside the Arctic Circle to Melville Bay, West Greenland.

We found sponges and anemones that we expect to be fixed to large rocks to be growing and surviving attached to small pebbles. Our videos show these floating along the seabed driven by the current caused by our camera. This has important implications for resilience to impact. These sponges and anemones are de-facto free living organisms with the potential to drift away from disturbance events.

The West Greenland Colwater Prawn Fishery has received a certificate of sustainability from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Our studies show that in terms of impact on the seabed, the fishery meets the MSC’s criteria for sustainability.

There is ongoing debate about whether these criteria are sufficiently strict to ensure true sustainability, and some have argued that no bottom trawl fishery should ever be certified sustainable. I’m sure this debate will continue, not least at our upcoming ZSL symposium (December 13th) entitled “Fishing in the Arctic, is there a sustainable approach?”.

I’ll be presenting more detailed findings from my research in Greenland and we’ll also be discussing the sustainability of commercial fishing in the Arctic with researchers, conservationists and industry experts.  I hope you can come along and join the debate.

 FREE DEBATE: Fishing in the Arctic

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