February 6, 2009

Warming Arctic Sparks Proposed Partial Ban On Fishing

A U.S. advisory panel on Thursday urged a ban on commercial fishing across a wide swath of the Arctic Sea off the Alaskan coast, in a pre-emptive measure against the effects of climate change.

Proponents of the measure said it was the firs time the U.S. had acted to close a fishery as a result of climate change instead of in reaction to overfishing, Reuters reported.

"Global climate change is making everyone think differently up here and making them understand that precautionary approaches are best," said Jim Ayers, a vice president of Oceana, an international marine conservation group based in Washington, who worked on negotiating the ban for the last several years.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to prohibit fishing in nearly 200,000 square nautical miles of Arctic waters in the so-called U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, which stretches from 3 miles offshore to 200 miles offshore, starting at the Bering Strait and extending north and east to the U.S.-Canada border.

The area of the potential ban prohibits any industrial fishing, but environmentalists, scientists and policy-makers are already seeing some fish species moving northward into the U.S. Arctic, due to Arctic sea ice ebbing and sea surface temperatures rising.

The fishing fleet would presumably follow without a ban.

The prohibition does not cover any of the existing fishing sites in the Bering Sea, which account for a large portion of the seafood shipped to the U.S.

The plan, passed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, instead prevents commercial fishing in very northern areas of the Arctic sea that have only recently become accessible as ice sheets in the Arctic melt.

Council staff member Bill Wilson said the council's unanimous decision includes a process for initiating commercial fishing in the future, but only when the council has sufficient scientific information on a potential fish stock and knowledge of how commercial fishing might affect the Arctic ecosystem.

Chris Krenz of the marine conservation group Oceana called that kind of forward-thinking approach "highly unusual".

"It is more customary for fisheries to spring up on their own, with official management racing to catch up after declines in fish population or ecosystem damage from overfishing have already occurred," Krenz said.

But Krenz said the council is now doing the exact opposite, which will help ensure that any fishing that does take place is done sustainably and without harming the health or the ecosystem or opportunities for the subsistence way of life of the people of the U.S. Arctic.

"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," said the Marine Conservation Alliance, an association of fishermen, processors and communities involved in fisheries off Alaska.

Krenz also suggested another reason to prohibit fishing in the area was to learn more about the impact of global warming in the Arctic, which is little understood.

The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported this week that the Arctic is warming about twice as fast, on average, as the rest of the world.

"The council's action could serve as a model for other nations and other industries, including oil and gas exploration, contemplating moves into the Arctic," Krenz said.


Image 2: With the Seward Peninsula of Alaska to the east, and Chukotskiy Poluostrovof Siberia to the west, the Bering Strait separates the United States and the Russian Federation by only 90 kilometers. It is named for Danish explorer Vitus Bering, who spotted the Alaskan mainland in 1741 while leading anexpedition of Russian sailors. This view of the region was captured by MISR's vertical-viewing (nadir) camera on August 18, 2000 during Terra orbit 3562. NASA


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