In response to the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice in the last thirty years, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has unanimously voted to prohibit fishing in nearly 200,000 square miles of Arctic waters.
The plan bans commercial fishing in the 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.
No fishing of any considerable scale occurs in the Arctic, and the few surveys of fish stocks done there have not shown large populations. But some experts say it’s that commercially valuable seafood species such as pollock or crab populations could expand in the Arctic, especially as water warms and ice unlocks.
The retreat of sea ice has kicked-off interest in the Arctic’s potential not only for fisheries but for energy development and for new shipping routes, including the long sought-after Northwest Passage.
Audubon Alaska, Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and the Pew Environment Group partnered with scientists, local Arctic communities, and fishermen to call for a science-based, precautionary approach before any industrial fishing activities are allowed to expand into the Arctic Ocean. The coalition pushed for the ban.
“Today’s decision signals a new day in the Arctic, where science comes first and where we think about the consequences of our actions before we take them,” said Janis Searles Jones, vice president with Ocean Conservancy, in a statement. Jones also called on drilling and shipping industries to follow the Council’s leadership to help keep the Arctic environment healthy.
Josh Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group also praised the decision. “Protecting our Arctic waters from a rush of commercial development is a wise move,” said Reichart. “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. Rarely are we given a chance to put an area’s value as an ecosystem ahead of its commercial potential.
Congress passed a resolution last spring with Russia, Canada, and other countries to cooperate on the management of transboundary migratory fish stocks in the Northern Arctic.