Large Swathe of Arctic Closed to Commercial Fishing


Steven Hedlund

Published on
February 5, 2009

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously in Seattle yesterday to ban commercial fishing north of the Bering Strait off Alaska to protect the fragile Arctic ecosystem from global climate change. The U.S. Commerce Department is expected to approve the recommendation.

No large-scale fisheries currently exist in the 196,000 square miles of U.S. waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas that would be off limits to commercial fishing, though subsistence fishing and hunting by indigenous people occurs there and would not be affected.

”This plan … gives guidance for potential future fisheries development in the Arctic to take a precautionary, protective approach,” said Eric Olson, the council’s chairman.

The move was hailed by both industry and environmental organizations.

“Climate change is having a significant effect on the Arctic, opening previously ice-covered waters and drawing cold-water species farther north,” said Dave Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance in Juneau, Alaska, which represents seafood companies and fishing ports. “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.”

“We do not know enough about the ecology of these areas to allow them to be fished commercially. Until we have that information in hand, we should not tamper with these vulnerable ecosystems, particularly at a time when climate change is already threatening them,” said Bill Fox, VP of fisheries for World Wildlife Fund.

“Protecting our Arctic waters from a rush of commercial development is a wise move. The cumulative effect of commercial fishing and shipping, as well as open-ended oil and gas development, could be devastating to this highly fragile system if not done correctly,” added Josh Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group. “Rarely are we given a chance to put an area’s value as an ecosystem ahead of its commercial potential. Too often we get it wrong by depleting resources first and then backpedaling to return a place to its former grandeur.”

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