Alaska Editorial: Arctic fishing ban is prudent, for now

Posted: Monday, February 16, 2009

The ban on industrial fishing in the Arctic, as recommended by federal advisers last week, is a prudent measure for the moment, but no one should expect that it will be easy to lift sometime in the future, even if the evidence supports such action.

The ban is billed as temporary. Supporters praising the action last week said the ban should last until studies explain the environmental mysteries that lie deep in the newly ice-free waters.

The danger is that such a standard is so broadly interpreted that it forms an obstacle more daunting than a yawning lead in the Beaufort Sea ice pack.

Even in areas where the ocean environment has been studied for decades, many conservation organizations argue that government managers fail to understand it. These organizations are happy to sue to make the point.

In one sense, they're right. We don't understand many aspects of the ocean environment. Who has the hard evidence to explain why Steller sea lion numbers have crashed and failed to rebound in the western Aleutians? Why do salmon returns to rivers fluctuate so wildly and unpredictably? Why are crab populations so resistant to recovery in some areas off Alaska's coast?

Today's governmental managers of the ocean environment do not have precise answers to these questions. They have some good ideas, but the hard proof and solutions still elude them.

Still, the managers allow large-scale commercial fisheries in Alaska's waters. They do so because, even lacking a complete understanding, they are reasonably confident that those fisheries can be carried out without serious environmental harm.

In Alaska, the managers have been proven right, most of the time. Our salmon runs, while terribly erratic, still have been impressive on average. Pollock harvest quotas, while reduced this year and last, are expected to rise soon. Halibut are doing well, even as we fight about allocations.

This success has come despite our incomplete understanding of why it occurs. Credit a cautious, science-based approach.

In the future, as the studies of the Arctic Ocean produce information, managers should have similar flexibility to allow fishing if they conclude little harm will come of it. If we insist that all mysteries be revealed before the first net drops, we might as well save the study money and set out a few buoys demarcating the latest marine park.

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