U.S. says no to Arctic fishing

December 4, 2009

ICELAND-EU/PEOPLE

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Alaska)

There is currently no commercial fishing conducted in U.S. Arctic waters, and now there won’t be: a formal ban on commercial seafood harvests in U.S. waters north of the Bering Strait went into effect on Thursday.

Environmentalists and fishery managers applauded the move as a rare precautionary step taken at a time when the environment in the far north is rapidly transforming because of accentuated climate change.

The Arctic Fishery Management Plan leaves open the option of commercial fishing in the future, but only if “managers gather first the information about the sustainability of any commercial fishing enterprise,” said Sheela McLean, spokeswoman for NOAA in Juneau, Alaska.

“We think the Arctic FMP is a great example of how to address the threat of unrestricted fishing in the Arctic. And we think it’s a great example for other nations to look at,” said Chris Krenz, Arctic project manager for Oceana, a national environmental group.

No other nation has imposed such a sweeping ban, though other countries are considering similar action, Krenz said. Fishery managers around the Arctic region are also considering similar action, as well as some kind of joint action to bar commercial fishing in international waters of the Arctic, he said.

A 2008 survey of the U.S. Beaufort Sea, the first comprehensive fishery survey since 1977, found increased presence of pollock, Pacific cod and other species that are targeted by commercial fishermen in the Bering Sea and North Pacific, according to reports presented by scientists at an Arctic fisheries symposium in Anchorage in October.

The pollock found last year in the Beaufort were too small to be of commercial value, but scientists for the first time documented the presence in those Arctic waters of snow crabs big enough to be commercially viable, according to reports presented at the symposium.

The presence of pollock, cod and large crabs is one of many changes occurring in Arctic waters, scientists say.

Ecological changes are linked to the retreat of summer sea ice, which hit its lowest level on record in 2007, and other changes in climate and hydrology have combined to create cascading impacts, scientists say.

Absence of summer sea ice creates vast stretches of dark, open water that absorb solar heat and light, delaying formation of sea ice in the autumn and potentially exposing phytoplankton to new conditions, said Tom Weingartner, an oceanographer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Absence of ice in the fall exposes shorelines to the impacts of storms and runoff, potentially dumping sediments into the habitat of sea-floor dwelling creatures, he said.

At the same time, increased river and stream runoff is putting more fresh water into the ocean, and as fresh water is lighter than salt water, that alters ocean conditions.

“There’s potentially a lot of large changes that could occur,” Weingartner said. “It’s hard to say, are those changes going to be good, bad or indifferent.”

(Picture: REUTERS/Bob Strong)

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