North Pacific Council Votes to Close Arctic to Commercial Fishing

SEATTLE, Washington, February 6, 2009 (ENS) – The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously Thursday to prohibit all commercial fishing activity in U.S. waters north of the Bering Strait and east to the Canadian border.

If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, this precautionary approach would close roughly 150,000 square nautical mile Arctic Management Area to commercial fishing, and is intended to provide an opportunity to assess the impacts of climate change on Arctic ecosystems before any commercial fishing is allowed.

The council has already closed an additional 527,110 square nautical miles off Alaska. In total, the area closed to protect fish habitat would cover an area more than five times larger than the entire U.S. National Park System.

To date, no large-scale commercial fishing occurs in the Arctic, and large fish populations do not show up on the few surveys conducted there, but global warming is melting the Arctic sea ice for longer periods each year, potentially enticing cold water fish further north than in the past.

Meeting in Seattle, the 15 member council represents government and industry fisheries experts from Alaska, Washington and Oregon and the U.S. government.

The council’s action today concludes a nearly two year process of deciding what action to take while a management plan is developed for the waters north of Bering Strait.

Spring ice pack on the Chukchi Sea north of the Bering Strait (Photo courtesy NOAA)

The Marine Conservation Alliance, a Juneau-based association of fishermen, processors and communities involved in the groundfish and crab fisheries off Alaska, said it fully supports the council’s action to close all commercial fishing in waters north of the Bering Strait until a management plan is fully developed.

“Climate change is having a significant effect on the Arctic, opening previously ice-covered waters and drawing cold water species further north,” said MCA executive director Dave Benton.

A resolution passed by the U.S. Senate last year supported a halt to commercial fishing in the Arctic until agreement is reached on managing migratory, transboundary and straddling stocks among all nations bordering the Arctic, including the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Russia, and the European Union.

Benton said, “The Council’s action to close these waters as a precautionary measure gives us the opportunity to conduct the scientific review necessary to develop a plan for how sustainable fisheries might be conducted in the Arctic in the future,” he said. “Hopefully a similar precautionary approach will be adopted by other nations that border the Arctic.”

The council says it will maintain a continuing review of the environment in the Arctic Management Area and will periodically review the provisions of the Fisheries Management Plan that implements the closure.

The council plans to maintain “close liaison” with the management agencies involved, particularly the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and National Marine Fisheries Service, but also including regional resource management entities in the Arctic Management Area such as the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, the Eskimo Walrus Commission, and the North Slope and Northwest Arctic Boroughs, to monitor the development of commercial fishery potential.

The council will promote research to increase knowledge of the marine environment and fishery resources of the Arctic Management Area, including birds and marine mammals, either through council funding or by recommending research projects to other agencies.

The council says it is “particularly interested in research that improves understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, predator-prey relationships, energy flow, and how climate warming affects these processes.”

Also planned are public hearings and outreach to Arctic natives and communities to hear testimony on the ecological relationships in the Arctic Management Area and the potential for commercial fishery development and management.

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