ANCHORAGE - A federal agency says it will open a public comment period on a proposal to prohibit commercial fishing in Arctic waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted the plan in February. That plan is now open for public review but still needs final approval of the Secretary of Commerce.
The plan has been hailed by environmentalists and industry representatives alike, who say summertime melting of sea ice has increased interest in commercial fishing in the Arctic.
The plan would prohibit industrial fishing in nearly 200,000 square miles of U.S. waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas until researchers can gather sufficient information on fish and the Arctic marine environment. It identifies Arctic cod, saffron cod and snow crab as species that likely would be targeted by commercial fishermen.
"This is a precautionary approach that has the United States saying to the world we are very concerned about what is going on in the Arctic," Jim Ayers, vice president of Oceana, said Tuesday.
If the plan gets final approval, it could go into effect early next year.
Doug Mecum, acting administrator of the Alaska region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the plan sets up a framework for possible development of Arctic fisheries in decades to come. Until now, commercial fishing interests have mostly stayed in the North Pacific but warming of the Arctic and the melting of sea ice has opened up vast stretches of the Beaufort and Chukchi for possible development.
"Historically, there have been no commercial fisheries in our Arctic seas," Mecum said. "But with the Arctic sea ice receding, more human activities may likely begin there, including increased interest in commercial fishing."
The plan would govern all commercial fishing for all stocks of finfish and shellfish in federal waters in Arctic waters off Alaska, except Pacific salmon and Pacific halibut. Those fish are managed under other authorities. It would not affect fisheries for salmon, whitefish and shellfish in Alaskan waters near the Arctic coastline. The proposed plan would not affect Arctic subsistence fishing or hunting.
Ayers said the plan sends the message that the United States is going to suspend industrial fishing activities until it understands more about the warming of the Arctic and ocean acidification. He hopes the message gets across not only to other countries but also to certain industries looking to do business in the Arctic.
"Oil and gas is foremost on our minds these days," he said. "We've been saying stop and look at what is going on in the Arctic. We are hoping the oil industry catches on to this approach."
Chris Krenz, Oceana's Arctic project manager, said the plan has broad-based support.
"This is a big opportunity for the rest of the public to weigh in and help push this forward," he said.
The plan can be found on the Web at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/arctic.
Comment will be taken until July 27.