The top official at Russia's fisheries agency said the country may withdraw from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), one of the most important governing bodies for fisheries resources in the North Atlantic, due to what he claimed was the organization's increasingly political agenda.

ICES suspended Russia from the body's activities in the wake of the Ukraine war in March last year.

The ICES Council of Delegates voted to place a temporary suspension on all Russian Federation delegates, members and experts from participation in ICES activities.

“We see that the Baltic countries -- which do not have access to the North Atlantic, not to mention the Arctic at all -- as well as many EU countries have deprived the Russian Federation of membership in this scientific organization,” Ilya Shestakov, the head of Russia’s federal fishery agency, Rosrybolovstvo, said last week at a conference on fisheries resources in the Arctic held in Arkhangelsk.

Without the full restoration of Russia's membership in ICES, there is no sense in continuing to work in this organization, he added.

Russia has notified ICES that if it does not restore its full membership, then "we will leave such a pseudo-scientific organization," Shestakov said.

"We will find opportunities to cooperate with those states that sign agreements in the field of scientific research," Shestakov said, citing cooperation with China as an example.

The all-important cod question

ICES plays an integral part in guiding countries when they are setting fishing quotas, by providing scientific advice on fish stocks.

Fact File: The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES)

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) is an intergovernmental marine science and research organization for the provision of information and advice to Member States and international bodies.

ICES coordinates research on oceanography, the marine environment and ecosystems and living marine resources in the North Atlantic Ocean and adjacent seas.

Among its most important work, ICES researchers track the biomass of key species in the North Atlantic, and give advice on the maximum allowable commercial fishing pressure on those stocks.

ICES advice is used as a guideline for several countries' decision-making on annual harvesting quotas, including the critical Barents Sea cod and haddock resources, which are jointly managed by Norway and Russia.

Founded in 1902, ICES is the world's oldest intergovernmental science organization.

Source: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

Notably for Russia, ICES provides advice for the Barents Sea and Baltic Sea fish stocks, which guides the quotas for all the major whitefish and pelagic species.

ICES advice is nearly universally adopted or closely followed by Norway and Russia in setting cod quotas in the Barents Sea -- one of the world's most important whitefish harvesting areas.

For example, in June 2021, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) recommended a 20 percent cut in both Barents Sea cod and haddock quotas for 2022. The quota was subsequently cut by the same amount.

Last year, because of Russia's departure from ICES, no advice was issued. However, Norwegian and Russian researchers did meet to set the quota, and recommended a further 20 percent cut to the Barents Sea cod quota for 2023, setting the total allowable catch (TAC) at 566,784 metric tons.

Other groups get under Russia's skin

Shestakov noted Russia is a member of several organizations in the field of fisheries that operate with a purely scientific agenda.

However, Shestakov said, partners in some organizations, in particular in CCAMLR (the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), behave differently and try without justification to close certain fishing areas to other states that have the right to catch in these sectors.

Among other resources, CCAMLR gives advice on the harvest of krill in the Antarctic.

Russia has signed agreements with 10 countries to counter illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing, as well as to close commercial fishing in the central part of the Arctic, Shestakov said.

At the time of its suspension last year, the ICES Bureau, the body's executive committee, said it would monitor the situation in Ukraine and, when appropriate, recommend a reversal of this suspension. It however gave no timeline on when it would formally evaluate reinstating Russia's membership, if at all.

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