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U.S. bans expanded commercial fishing in the Arctic

August 20, 2009 |  8:46 pm

Arctic-fishing-map

In an attempt to head off a major commercial fishing march into the Arctic, the Obama administration has declared a moratorium on expanded fishing in the still-uncharted waters of the far north, a move which as the nearly unprecedented support of both conservationists and the fishing industry.

The announcement by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke bans the expansion of most commercial fishing beyond the Alaskan coast until broad new scientific studies can determine what fish stocks exist and how crucial they are to maintaining a fragile Arctic ecosystem already facing substantial stress because of melting sea ice and rising sea acid levels.

The U.S. move is seen as the first step in negotiating a similar, multinational moratorium on fishing in international waters of the Arctic at a time when fishing fleets from around the globe are signaling an interest in moving into the pristine waters that hold stocks of crab, Arctic cod, saffron cod and, increasingly, limited numbers of pollock and salmon as they migrate north into warming waters.

Fish like Arctic cod are not only a potential commercial resource -- they are a crucial food source for many marine mammals, birds and other fish whose sources of nutrition may be diminishing with the polar sea ice.

"As Arctic sea ice recedes due to climate change, there is increasing interest in commercial fishing in Arctic waters," Locke said. "We are in a position to plan for sustainable fishing that does not damage the overall health of this fragile ecosystem. This plan takes a precautionary approach to any development of commercial fishing in an area where there has been none in the past."

The order, recommended by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council in February, restricts any future commercial fishing for finfish and shellfish in nearly 200,000 square miles of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, north of the Bering Straits off the coast of Alaska.

It does not apply to Pacific salmon and Pacific halibut, which are managed under other authorities, and does not restrict Native Alaskans to continue subsistence fishing in the region.  It provides that any fishing allowed in the future, once scientific studies are in place, will be subject to strict monitoring and strong restrictions on catch levels, fishing gear, discarded fish and areas permitted for fishing.

"This is the first time an administration has taken the time to protect an entire marine ecosystem before commercial fishing took place. It is historic -- a model for how we should work in the Arctic ocean and take a precautionary approach," said Marilyn Heiman, U.S. Arctic program director for the Pew Environment Group.

"It is what can happen if conservationists and industry work together," said Jim Ayers, Pacific region vice president for the marine protection group Oceana. "It demonstrates there is a collective wisdom that the Arctic needs to be dealt with differently than our other resources have been dealt with in the past, and happily it sets a a paradigm as well for the oil industry."

The U.S. government is reviewing plans to open large tracts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to offshore oil and gas exploration, a move which until now has been blocked in the courts.

The support of major fishing industry groups in freezing commercial fishing expansion in the Arctic marked one of the few times the industry has supported blocking off entire regions, but there has been widespread support even among fishermen for allowing time for sufficient studies to learn what is in the Arctic environment.

"The importance is now with the fisheries management plan. The U.S. is on good footing to engage our Russian and Canadian neighbors in bilateral talks to try and get agreement on an international moratorium in international waters of the Arctic," said David Benton of the Alaska-based Marine Conservation Alliance, which represents fishing companies, processors and ports.

Benton said pollock stocks in the Bering Sea had reached more than 2 million metric tons in the 1980s, but sharply collapsed when fishing fleets from China, Japan, Poland and Korea began heavily fishing the unregulated waters between Russia. A 1994 international agreement imposed a moratorium on fishing in the area known as the "doughnut hole."

"That's an instructive lesson for what could unfold in the high Arctic," Benton said at a hearing on Arctic issues Thursday in Anchorage. "The United States had to be on good, solid footing to then go to the rest of the world and say, 'We don’t want to repeat what happened in the Bering Sea.' "

Conservationists believe fishing should be held at bay until studies can measure not only the numbers of fish but the complex inter-connections between fish, birds, marine mammals and the ocean itself.

"We really know very little about the Arctic in terms of basic biological information -- what species are even there, how abundant are they, where do they occur, much less the more complicated thing, which is what drives the productivity of the area, the functioning of the ecosystem," said Chris Krenz, Oceana's Arctic program manager. "Without some serious attention, we risk some pretty serious environmental degradation in the region."

-- Kim Murphy

Map credit: Oceana, based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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