ANCHORAGE - In a move aimed at limiting harm to Arctic waters opened by global warming, a federal advisory board voted Thursday to ban commercial fishing north of the Bering Strait off Alaska's coast.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, meeting in Seattle, voted unanimously to prohibit industrial fishing in nearly 200,000 square miles of U.S. waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The U.S. Commerce Department is expected to approve the recommendation.
Environmental and industry representatives hailed the council's decision, saying summertime melting of sea ice has outpaced regulators' ability to manage Arctic Ocean waters.
"The rate of change in the Arctic is increasing, and the retreat of sea ice is happening faster than our science is able to provide the kind of information we need to determine whether there should be or can be a sustainable fishery in the Arctic," said Dave Benton, director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, a trade group representing fishing interests from rural Alaska village associations to factory trawlers.
Janis Searles Jones, vice president of Ocean Conservancy, said the decision "removes one source of additional stress, giving the Arctic, its peoples and animals a better chance to adapt to the changes."
The Commerce Department's review could take at least six months, said Jay Ginter of the agency's National Marine Fisheries Service.
The fishery council has primary responsibility for managing Bering Sea groundfish, including Alaska pollock, the largest U.S. fishery by volume. Annual catches average 2.5 billion pounds and provide raw material for fishsticks and fast-food fish sandwiches.
The plan will protect 196,000 square miles of U.S waters. Polar bears, whales and other endangered or threatened animals inhabit the waters or sea ice, along with walruses and ice seals. Native Alaskan coastal communities use the waters for hunting.
Commercial fishing interests so far have stayed in the North Pacific, but warming has opened vast stretches in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, imperiling animal habitat but opening the area for commerce.
Arctic Ocean summer sea ice in 2007 melted to 1.65 million square miles, nearly 40 percent less than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000. Climate models predict a continued downward spiral, possibly with an ice-free Arctic Ocean during summer by 2030 or sooner.
As ice disappears, marine researchers have detected fish species moving north.
Benton said the commercial fleet has the resources to move into the Arctic, but "the right thing to do is to stand down, close the waters of the Arctic and let science catch up."
A crucial next step will be getting other Arctic nations to take the same action and making rules for international waters, he said.
Benton said adopting the Arctic fishing plan will mean 650,000 square miles of U.S. ocean off Alaska have been closed to trawling, bottom trawling or all fishing - five times the acreage of the national park system.