National Geographic Society Newsroom

High in the Arctic up-close with a mega-fishing trawler

I’m in the high Arctic in the waters of Svalbard, north of Norway, at 78º North Latitude in early July. For a few days I’m a guest aboard Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise. Bundled in clothes that I hope will keep me dry and maybe even warm, I’m at a doorway that opens straight to the...

I’m in the high Arctic in the waters of Svalbard, north of Norway, at 78º North Latitude in early July. For a few days I’m a guest aboard Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise.

Bundled in clothes that I hope will keep me dry and maybe even warm, I’m at a doorway that opens straight to the frigid sea, waiting for the right moment to step down into a small boat that will take me up close to one of the huge Russian fishing ships that is plowing slowly along the horizon. One of our own Russian officers has been on the radio with them, informing them politely—but not asking permission—that we will be coming close to photograph their net as it is hauled up after hours of dragging along the seafloor. They’re not happy.

Trawl-fishing ship. Credit: Carl Safina
Trawl-fishing ship. Credit: Carl Safina

We’re here to witness and photograph fishing boats moving into these waters and to advance a discussion about limits. As the Arctic is warming, fish like cod and many others are moving north. Factory-sized trawlers are coming for them in areas they hadn’t fished before. They drag huge bag-shaped nets along the seafloor, plowing through, catching what’s in their path, their nets crushing delicate corals and many soft-bodied creatures that live on and in the seabed and that provide shelter for young fishes and food for the fish, including the cod, that humans like to eat.

These are the big, big trawlers like the ones that helped demolish the cod of New England and the Grand Banks in the 1970s. Those fish populations have never recovered.

Here though, a lot’s been learned in the last few decades. After intensive overfishing, and major illegal operations in the Barents Sea have been routed out, fishing here is now among the world’s best managed.

Barents Sea fishing is high-volume, with a cod quota of 859,000 metric tons annually, allocated among Norway, Russia, and other fishing countries. Yet the fish populations are generally robust. Major fishing companies and major retailers have been committed to keeping them that way. And they want to retain their certification as “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council, their ticket to the wallets of conscientious consumers.

That’s all good. But a recent Greenpeace report showed that fishing here, in these waters around Svalbard, is expanding rapidly. Following that report, major fishing companies sat down with Greenpeace—and they have done something unprecedented. Even though there is no government protection in these new fishing areas, some of the largest fishing companies of Norway and Russia recently committed voluntarily to not expanding further into new areas until they’ve been fully evaluated and a protection plan has been agreed to. On the fish-catching side of the equation, the entire Norwegian oceangoing fishing fleet as represented by Fiskebåt, along with the biggest operators in the Russian fleet, the Karat Group, plus the Fishing Union Association of the North have also signed onto this voluntary agreement.

Svalbard map
Map of Svalbard

And on the retail side of this Greenpeace effort, various major seafood retailers have pledged not to accept cod from any companies who expand into these waters in violation of the agreement. These giant retailers include: McDonald’s, Birds Eye, Tesco, Young’s Seafood, and Europe’s largest frozen fish processor, Espersen.

But even all these committed organizations do not include all trawlers fishing in these waters. It does not include the Norwegian government. What’s needed now is for these companies and environmentalists with Greenpeace to help convince the Norwegian government to work toward a plan to protect some areas from all trawling and to get it right before it’s ruined.

For now, Greenpeace is the monitor, the eyes, ears, and surrogate conscience on these waters. And so I step a little unsteadily into this small inflatable boat, and we roar off.

Clouds press low overhead like a roll of insulation in the attic of the world. Everything seems a range of grays. The sea is slate. Calm, with a low swell, little wind and no chop to speak of. Chilly. I regret leaving my earmuffs aboard and am glad I grabbed my gloves.

The most numerous seabirds out here, little gray albatross cousins called fulmars, are streaming toward the ship we’re headed to. They all know when the net is coming up; and they all know that it means free food.

Wondrous creatures live here. Many seabirds (kittiwakes, guillemots; we are seeing some clown-faced Atlantic puffins), seals and narwhals—. Many of these animals depend on high Arctic conditions and sea ice. Yet ice cover in the Barents Sea has fallen by about half from what it was in 2008, while the annual “summer season” here is now 20 weeks longer than it was in 1980.

Those runaway changes mean more fish from the south—cod, haddock, saithe (pollock), redfish, and others; crabs—shifting north. In the last 15 years the percent of Norway’s cod catch that is coming from Svalbard quintupled from two to ten percent. More boats will surely follow.

Cod and redfish. Credit: Carl Safina
Cod and redfish. Credit: Carl Safina

Greenpeace is working to get a network of protected areas off-limits to trawling. But I believe that the 10 percent they are calling for is actually too modest. I’d like at least 30 percent by 2020. And the great Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson has recently called for taking half and leaving half. That approach would best ensure long-term commercial viability, survival of the wild creatures, and a world to pass along to the hungry children of the coming generations.

Close to the trawler as the nets come up, I wave to the working crew. The men do not return my waves. One makes a kind of gesture with his fists in the air. Not obscene and not hostile but a bit defiant. “We are here; we are not going anywhere,” he seems to imply.

Of course, our presence says the same to them.

We feel no animosity to the people aboard. I see them in my binoculars. Working guys, young guys. Doing their job. They could almost be swapped for the people aboard our ship. Our shared humanity. Our differing perspectives. Reason enough for a conversation, where a conversation cannot be had. It gets so complicated.

Young crewmen. Credit: Carl Safina
Young crewmen. Credit: Carl Safina

We must come and take our impressions, make our images, bear our witness. Then in other places, ashore, with business people and governmental bureaucrats and politicians, the conversation will be advanced at a distance. Even we the witnesses must hand much of that conversation off to others.

There are the soldiers and there are diplomats. I have been a bit of both and today I am one of the soldiers. I like to think I am a peacekeeper. But I understand that to those on the trawler I am a meddler, a petty harasser. I don’t mean to be. Really.

Why should people from far away care? Because we’re not really far away and we’re all involved in the changes here. What people in the world’s great cities do is causing the changes to climate, ice, sea acidity, and the shifting ranges of the fishes. What people far away choose to eat determines the intensity of the fishing here.

The nets come up, first with a few fish jammed by their heads into the panels of webbing. Then comes the “cod end,” the back bag of the net, writhing with tons of fish, bellies expanded with gas in the light pressure of a single atmosphere, some fish half in and half out of the mesh, bodies waving, jaws gasping in the thin air at the brief ending of their deep, dark lives.

Final moments watching the trawling vessel pull up its catch. Credit: Carl Safina
Final moments watching the trawling vessel pull up its catch. Credit: Carl Safina

I shoot many frames, continually checking my exposure and focus, then firing furiously as the net washes past us at close quarters and I have the dying fishes eye-to-eye in my telephoto lens. Finally all of them get winched up the stern ramp, past the enormous steel planing plates that had held the net open as it plowed along. Men walk on and across the net, opening the bag, letting the thousands of fish be swallowed into the belly of the ship. This is humanity’s main relationship to the sea: take to eat, simply that.

A small redfish, goggled-eyed with the internal pressure of coming quickly from the deep, has fallen out of the net and drifts past us like a little red buoy, hideous in the improbability of so unnatural a death. Two fulmars land near. One paddles over, thrusts its hooked bill into the fish’s midsection, and shakes open a tear in its belly. The fulmars, concerned only with what they can take, see nothing in trawling that is not to like. But the ape that comes bundled in clothing can, sometimes, see a bigger picture. If we think ourselves smarter than fulmars, now’s our chance.

#   #   #

Carl Safina’s recent bestselling book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel is newly out in paperback. See Carl’s TED talk here. He is Stony Brook University’s Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity, and founder of The Safina Center.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Carl Safina
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.