Commercial Fishing Is Barred in Parts of Arctic

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009

Federal fisheries managers have voted to bar all commercial fishing in U.S. waters from north of the Bering Strait and east to the Canadian border in light of the rapid climate changes that are transforming the Arctic.

In a unanimous vote yesterday, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council ruled that scientists and policymakers need to better assess how global warming is affecting the region before allowing fishing on stocks such as Arctic cod, saffron cod and snow crab.

"There's concern over unregulated fishing, there's concern about warming, there's concern about how commercial fishing might affect resources in the region, local residents and subsistence fishing and the ecosystem as a whole," said Bill Wilson, a council aide.

Environmentalists and fishing interests praised the move as sensible, given the changes to ice cover and other features of the Arctic environment.

The Marine Conservation Alliance -- an association representing fishermen and processors who harvest groundfish and crab off Alaska's coast -- endorsed the council's decision to close an area spanning nearly 200,000 square miles, an area nearly twice as large as the U.S. national park system.

"We really feel strongly the science needs to catch up with the rate of change in the Arctic," David Benton, the association's executive director, said in an interview.

The vote marks the culmination of a years-long debate over whether to permit fishing before the council adopts a management plan for the region. Advocacy groups including Oceana, the Ocean Conservancy and the Pew Environment Group had lobbied for a moratorium until researchers can determine how Arctic marine life would respond to commercial fishing.

Jim Ayers, vice president of Oceana, said the decision marks a major shift in U.S. oceans policy. "It's new for the United States, given the Bush administration's opposition to a precautionary approach," he said in an interview.

Benton said the vote would allow the United States "to go to other countries and say, 'Look at what we are doing in the Arctic, and we want you to join with us to do the right thing.' "

Janis Searles Jones, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, said she also hopes the move will serve as a model for other policies.

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