Climate change, over-fishing could threaten some species

Biologist raises alarm over Arctic fish stocks


People in the Arctic should be concerned that climate change and over-fishing may hurt Canada's fish stocks, says a Canadian biologist.

Arctic char and other northern species such as shrimp appear to be in good condition, but this situation could change, warns Jeff Hutchings of Dalhousie University, also chair of Canada's Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife.

Hutchings, who has studied Nunavut's unique populations of landlocked Arctic char and Atlantic cod, was in Iqaluit Feb. 17 to speak about the consequences of climate change and over-fishing and what we can do about it.

Lake Hazen's two varieties of landlocked char and the "monster" Atlantic cod of ­Baffin Island, are examples of the Arctic's biodiversity, which could be at risk, Hutching said.

The huge cod, many the size of large dogs, are unique to Nunavut. They are only found in Ogac Lake near Frobisher Bay and in two lakes along the Cumberland Sound, called Qasigialiminik and Tariujarusiq.

The fish ended up in the lakes at the end of the last ice age, 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. When the last ice retreated, the land uplifted, pinching off these bodies of water and cutting these cod off from the ocean, Hutchings said.

However, Ogac Lake is open to the ocean – and this has allowed its huge cod to thrive. The high tides of each month, which bring in food and salt, help the cod to survive.

The cod have been assessed as "of special concern" by scientists but are not listed officially as a Canadian species at risk.

Arctic fish that aren't protected by virtue of living in remote lakes may face greater risks – from climate change, over-fishing and a lack of Canadian legislation to protect them.

Canada has the longest coastline in the world and needs to take more leadership on ocean matters and tighten up its regulations, instead of allowing over-fishing, Hutchings said.

"The Fisheries Act has failed to provide and protect for fisheries," he said, noting that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans promotes industry and fish stock conservation – two mandates which are not always compatible.

A U.S. recent recommendation for a moratorium on Arctic Ocean fisheries north of Alaska has put pressure on Canada to produce a sustainable, long-term strategy for its fish stocks.

The proposed moratorium would cover Arctic waters off of Alaska's northern coast, including much of the Beaufort Sea.

The U.S. fisheries council is urging approval of the "precautionary, protective approach'' to safeguarding Arctic fish stocks until populations can be fully studied.

At the same time, climate change is affecting the ocean environment for fish stocks, altering the ocean's temperature, salt content and currents.

Due to higher ocean temperatures, a recent study suggests that, on average, fish will change their distribution by more than 40 kilometres a decade in the next 50 years.

As well, there are species in the Arctic no one knows much about at all.

A marine census, released earlier this month, documented 5,500 species in the Arctic. Some of the more unusual Arctic species include jellyfish-like creatures the size and colour of an orange and sea spiders as large as a human hand.

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