Commercial fishing in US Arctic waters is to be banned at least until its effects are understood, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has decided.*
In the most powerful application yet of the precautionary principle to fisheries, the council said its prohibition should stay in force until impacts of commercial fishing in previously ice covered waters are fully understood.
“This is a courageous and ethical move by Alaska’s fishermen,” said Bill Fox, Vice President of Fisheries with WWF-US. WWF, along with other groups, has been lobbying for a ban on commercial fishing in the Arctic until a fisheries management plan for the region is developed.
“We do not know enough about the ecology of these areas to allow them to be fished commercially. Until we have that information in hand, we should not tamper with these vulnerable ecosystems, particularly at a time when climate change is already threatening them.”
Council member Bill Tweit, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said, “Traditional knowledge and the precautionary principle is applied here which is important in the scientific management of fisheries in the Arctic" while US State Dept Nicole Ricci described the decision as “a pioneering piece of domestic regulation which will provide international leadership for fisheries management in the Arctic”
The Arctic ice cover has been eroding rapidly over the past few years as a result of global climate change, with Arctic warming levels being about twice the global average.
Summer 2007 set a record for the minimum extent of arctic sea ice at 4.3 million square kilometers, with 2008 close behind. The summer ice cover has fallen by more than 40% from the 1980s, opening around 1.3 million square kilometres of the Arctic to fishing, oil exploration and shipping.
Arctic ecosystems are considered extremely fragile and slow to recover from disruptions or damage. Fish stocks are particularly sensitive to ocean temperatures with even small changes resulting extremely unpredictable shifts in the locations and productivity of the stocks and even a small commercial fishery in the Arctic could have substantial impacts.
Also uncovered by the retreating ice are significant gaps in regulatory cover over the national and international waters of the Arctic. Welcome as the new US moves are, they apply to only a small proportion of Arctic waters.
“We urge other Arctic countries to follow the lead of the US,” said Fox. “Many of the fish stocks and other elements of the marine ecosystem cross more than one country’s jurisdiction and while the US move is helpful, it is not sufficient unless other Arctic nations take similar steps.
“This is a perfect example of why the Arctic needs a better legal and regulatory framework so that we can take coordinated steps to protect both the environment and the welfare of Arctic communities.”
Kodiak fisherman and council member Duncan Fields said he had "been persuaded to support this plan by testimony from those in Western Alaska. I've also been informed and persuaded by the tremendous voices in the environmental community and the many faces who contributed from their organizations".
*February 5, 2009
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