Oil studies find commercial fish in Arctic waters

Posted: Wednesday, March 02, 2011

ANCHORAGE — Surveys for possible oil and gas drilling off Alaska’s northern coast have found commercial fish such as Pacific cod and walleye pollock in Arctic waters where they have not been previously documented, the Anchorage Daily News reported Monday.

The studies of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas are generating research of value beyond oil exploration.

The National Marine Fisheries Service conducted a trawler survey in the summer of 2008 in the western Beaufort. In addition to the discovery of cod and Pollock, it found commercial-sized snow crab.

The goal of the survey, recently compiled into a final report, was to help evaluate the potential impacts of oil and gas development, said Libby Logerwell of the fisheries service. It was the first offshore fish survey in 30 years in the Beaufort, where the federal government has leased seafloor to major oil companies for exploration.

The 2008 survey found the commercial fish species, which are more typically caught in the Bering and North Pacific. That led federal fishery regulators to ban commercial fishing in U.S. Arctic waters in 2009, before seafood companies could even think about moving boats. The biggest fishery in Alaska targets Bering Sea pollock.

A larger concern is the potential for environmental disruption, either from increased shipping traffic as Arctic ice recedes or from catastrophic oil spills.

Scientists also are watching commercially valuable fish and shellfish species expand their range northward because of warming ocean temperatures.

Since 2006, federal offshore oil and gas regulators have spent about $60 million on Arctic research.

Another survey of the central Beaufort — led by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks — is scheduled this summer closer to Camden Bay, where Royal Dutch Shell PLC hopes to drill its first oil well in the U.S. Arctic in decades. The $1.7 million survey is funded by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Federal scientists acknowledge they have had to rely on limited, old data about fish when they analyzed the potential environmental impacts of exploring for oil and gas in the Beaufort. The scarcity of data and concerns about Arctic wildlife including bowhead whales and polar bears has resulted in harsh criticism from environmental groups seeking to halt or slow the pace of oil and gas development in offshore waters.

Shell, one of the companies that aspires to drill exploration wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi, says it has spent more than $500 million on scientific work.

Shell is still analyzing its fish data from the Beaufort last year, said Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith.

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