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Fishing in the Arctic?
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Fishing in the Arctic?

Dispatches from the Arctic

Editor’s note: This is the fourth dispatch from Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program, who is leading a team of NOAA scientists on a research cruise in the Arctic. 

As the Arctic warms twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the range and distribution of at least some fish stocks found in places like the Bering Sea will likely extend northward. That could bring some big changes to the region. More than 60 percent of all seafood caught in the United States comes from the waters off Alaska and generates billions of dollars in revenue each year. 

As previously ice-covered areas of the Arctic become seasonally ice-free, there will be pressure to expand US fishing north of the Bering Strait. That can’t happen under the Arctic Management Plan, established in 2009, which prohibits commercial fishing until scientists and fisheries managers understand what’s going on with the ecosystem. 

A number of scientists on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy research cruise I’m on are studying many aspects of the environment that could impact potential fishing in the Arctic. Thousands of water samples are being collected in order to measure the amount of nutrients making their way up from the Pacific Ocean into the Arctic. Like fertilizer for a garden, these nutrients allow plankton, or tiny ocean plants, to grow, forming the base of the Arctic food web.  

On the back deck of the Healy, Morgan Busby, a research fisheries biologist for NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center, is deploying nets that collect tiny fish to determine what species are grazing on the copious amounts of plankton produced each year. The species, size, and location of the fish are one of the best indicators we have for how the ecosystem is changing.  

Over the last two decades, as temperatures have warmed and sea ice has retreated, the Arctic Ocean has been getting more productive, which means there could be more food for fish to eat. However, not everything is trending in a positive direction. While higher levels of plankton create conditions that are more conducive for harvestable fisheries, ocean acidification is rapidly progressing in the Arctic. 

Jessica Cross, Ph.D., from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, has been studying ocean acidification and has discovered some alarming trends. “We see that the entire Arctic Ocean is going to slip below some key thresholds over the next few decades when it comes to ocean acidification and that could really impact some of the species that are just starting to get a foothold in the Arctic,” Jessica explained.  

With all the changes underway, it is critical to use the Distributed Biological Observatory, an array of observational buoys, unmanned systems and other tools in the Arctic, to monitor changing ecosystems. The array will provide information to help assess if and when a viable commercial fishery could ever be established in the Arctic.

For more information, please contact Theo Stein, NOAA Communications, at 303-497-6288 or

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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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