Fishing conflicts to spread as ice melts in Arctic

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New fishing conflicts could occur in the Arctic as the ice caps melt over the next decade and open up new areas for commercial trawlers that have been excluded from overfished areas such as the North Sea.

But the US Navy notes in a new report that it will not be able to police the areas, especially because there is disagreement about which parts they can oversee. Russia and Canada say their sea routes are part of national territory, while the US regards the same waters as international.

Although the "North-west Passage" through the Arctic ice north of Canada was first opened in 1906, it can still only be passed by special "icebreaker" ships. But global warming is leading to the thinning of polar ice caps, and by 2012 could mean that the passage is open seas for a month every summer, while the Northern Sea Route – across the top of Russia – could be open for two months each year within five years, giving present melting patterns.

But New Scientist magazine says this week that the US Navy has studied the likely exploitation of those areas and concluded that standard naval operations – necessary to stop smuggling and piracy – could be impossible in those areas, because satellite coverage for communications is so limited.

Dennis Conlon of the US Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia, notes in a newly declassified report that modern ships and weapons rely on various kinds of sensors, none of which work well in Arctic conditions.

Ice makes sonar monitoring difficult, while icy decks and high winds make aircraft hard to land and control. Finally, the "midnight sun" at high latitudes makes secret operations much harder.

Peter Wadhams of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge agrees that the Arctic could soon open up. "Within a decade we can expect regular summer trade there," he said.