The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council has adopted a new ecosystem-based plan to manage Alaska’s Bering Sea, where climate change is affecting coastal communities and commercial fisheries.
The Bering Sea is among the world’s most productive regions for seafood, but warming water temperatures and a lack of sea ice over recent years have forced the NPFMC to consider new approaches to its management of the sea’s fisheries.
The result is the Bering Sea Fisheries Ecosystem Plan (FEP), a 150-page document adopted by the NPFMC this month intended to provide a more agile and inclusive framework for the quickly changing ecosystem.
“One of the things that was very important to the council was making sure that we have the tools in place to be able to respond to changing climate conditions by some of our modules that look at evaluating the resiliency of the management framework and different tools that are available to address the bigger-picture more holistic questions,” said Diana Evans, the council’s primary staff lead for the FEP.
Evans and her colleagues worked for four years to develop the new plan, taking in extensive input from stakeholders and local and traditional communities who live on the coastal Bering Sea – the latter a primary focus of the FEP.
Becca Robbins Gisclair, who advocates for sustainable fisheries on behalf of the Ocean Conservancy, called the new plan “groundbreaking.”
“It represents a significant advance in incorporating local and traditional knowledge into the council’s decision-making process and providing an entry point for tribes and communities into the council process,” Gisclair said. “With what we’re seeing in terms of climate change, it’s more important now than ever to be sure we’re using every source of information we can.”
The southeastern Bering Sea has gone through three straight winters with no sea ice, and last winter the northern Bering saw its first season on record without a deep freeze. Sea ice serves as a biological organizing force and without it, migrations and food chains are disrupted. That results in big question marks surrounding fish stocks, and disruptions in the traditional way of life for coastal communities in the region.
Mellisa Heflin, the executive director for the Bering Sea Elders Group, said some of the communities she represents, which stretch from the Seward Peninsula in the north down almost to Bristol Bay, depend on a healthy ecosystem to maintain their way of life.
“The people that I work for, the Bering Sea is their backyard, their freezer, their Fred Meyer,” Heflin said.
Heflin and others hope the FEP will swing the door open for the deep traditional knowledge of the tribes that have lived there for generations.
“To my knowledge, there hasn’t been much inclusion of tribal participants in the council process, mainly because of the professional and education requirements. And the council process is very intricate. You can’t just a pick up a document and figure out what’s going on. There are many aspects that are very difficult to maneuver, especially if English is your second language,” Heflin said.
As waters warm, there is concern among communities in the northern Bering Sea that lucrative stocks like cod and pollock will move north, dragging large-scale fisheries with them and causing increased vessel traffic and further damage to the ecosystem, according to Evans.
“We recognize that the spatial distribution of the fisheries might change and move northward. We've looked at this question for a number of years, but this last couple years is the first time we’ve really seen a lot of evidence of that. While the cold pool was still strong we weren't really seeing a lot of evidence of commercially viable concentrations of fish moving north, but I think that’s changing,” Evans said.
Evans said it is precisely these kinds of concerns they hope the new FEP is equipped to deal with, first by listening to local concerns and then by using the plan’s module system to prioritize actions. As a precautionary measure, the northern Bering Sea is currently closed to bottom-trawl fishing, and significant research and debate would be needed before any fishing happens there, she said.
If the time does come for that discussion, the local tribes now have a new avenue to provide insight.
“We’re hoping for as much community involvement in the FEP process as possible, as far as being inclusive of local and traditional knowledge. We hope to work with the industry where they might not be very informed about indigenous knowledge,” Heflin said, adding, “This a living document that is pretty inclusive in many perspectives. We’re happy that we’ve gotten to this point.”