Alaska editorial: Federal managers decide to look before they leap

Posted: Friday, January 16, 2009

As ice disappears from Alaska's arctic waters, North Pacific fishing fleets may be tempted to push into the newly opening area, seeking whatever fish they might find. But nobody knows very much about the region's marine environment, how the arctic warming trend is changing it, and what damage, if any, commercial fishing might inflict.

Which is why the federal agency that manages Alaska's arctic waters wants to put a hold on any industrial fishing in the U.S. portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

Monday, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council took a big step in that direction when it released a draft plan to close off fishing in Alaska's arctic waters. The council's official decision to close the area is expected next month.

Alaska's federal fishery managers deserve credit for getting ahead of any problems that industrial fishing might create in the Arctic.

This is "exactly the kind of precautionary action we need to protect Arctic Ocean ecosystem in the face of climate change," says Oceana, an international marine conservation organization with an office in Juneau. The closure is "among the largest-ever precautionary and preventative measures in fisheries management history."

Oceana noted that Congress called for a precautionary arctic fishing closure last summer, in a resolution sponsored by Alaska's senator at the time Ted Stevens. In pushing that move, Sen. Stevens continued his long history of leadership on marine conservation issues.

As Congress recognized, a "Cold Rush" is breaking out in the newly thawing arctic. Nations are jockeying for rights to oil, gas, shipping routes and other resources.

But in arctic waters under U.S. government control, there won't be a Cold Rush for fish any time soon. The feds are going to protect it until the nation better understands whether the region can support sustainable large-scale fisheries.

BOTTOM LINE: Federal managers are getting ahead of any problems by saying "no" to industrial fishing in the Arctic right now.

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