• Plan covers 200,000-square-mile area off Alaskan coast
• New rules will be forwarded to US commerce department
Spurred by global warming concerns in the US Arctic, a federal fishery council yesterday established a moratorium on commercial seafood harvests in a vast zone off Alaska's northern coast.
In a unanimous vote in Seattle, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved the plan in response to the dramatic retreat of summertime ice in Arctic waters.
The plan covers a nearly 200,000-square-mile area stretching from the Bering Strait waters near Russia to the US maritime boundary with the Canadian Arctic. The plan will be forwarded to the US commerce department for final approval, and would be a boost to state department efforts to negotiate similar fishing closures off the Arctic coasts of Canada and the Russian Far East.
There are currently no commercial harvests in the federal waters of the US Arctic, which stretch from 3 to as far as 200 miles offshore through the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
But many believe that pressures to fish those areas will increase in the years ahead if warming waters cause a migration there of pollock and other species that now sustain major harvests farther south in the Bering Sea.
"The rate of change in the Arctic is fairly well understood," said David Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, which represents commercial fishing groups, processors and Alaska communities. "What is not understood is the way that it's going to affect the marine environment and the Arctic people." The council is a mix of federal, state and industry officials who help set the rules guiding north Pacific commercial harvests, which are the largest in North America.
Their plan would not impose a permanent ban on commercial fishing. Fishing would be allowed only if additional surveys indicate harvests could be sustainable and not harm the broader marine ecosystem.
"This is a precautionary approach," said Eric Olson, a native Alaskan who chairs the federal council. "It's protective. It lays out a framework for fisheries development in the Arctic."
The summer ice pack retreated to its lowest level on record in 2007, and last summer marked the second-smallest ice pack. Climate scientists expect that global warming, caused by the buildup of greenhouse-gas emissions in the atmosphere, will cause the melting of the summer ice pack in Arctic waters by about 2030.
There have been relatively few surveys of fishery stocks in the US Arctic. The latest effort was last summer, when federal fisheries scientists in Seattle chartered a fishing vessel for a three-week cruise. The top species found in the survey included Arctic cod, a fish that is important for Arctic marine birds and mammals, and snow crab, according to Elizabeth Logerwell, the lead federal biologist.
The survey nets also caught small amounts of pollock, Pacific cod and Bering flounder, three commercial fish Logerwell said were not noted in a 1977 survey. Small numbers of the species might have always inhabited the waters, or they may have migrated north in recent decades as summer ocean ice retreated.
The plan's passage reflects an unusual consensus between the fishing industry and conservationists. Jim Ayers, vice president of the environmental group Oceana, called the plan a "model for management of the Arctic Ocean". He said he found common ground with industry officials in numerous late-night conversations fueled by coffee and whiskey shots.
The plan also has garnered support from native Alaskans in the Arctic. They are wary of the impacts of a large-scale commercial harvest upon whales, seals and other marine life that support their subsistence harvests.
But there is interest in the king crab that now congregate in federal waters off Kotzebue in north-west Alaska. If surveys indicate a sustainable harvest is possible, officials of the regional borough would like to leave that option open for a local fleet.
State department officials say they already are discussing ocean conservation measures in other Arctic areas.