Diverse interests agree on no harvest in U.S. Arctic
As global warming melts Arctic ice for longer periods, the international tensions about what belongs to whom are mounting. Politics, commerce and environmental interests merge.
MELTING Arctic ice is an ecological dilemma that will be forcing scientists and diplomats along with the fishing and energy industries to rethink how they do business in U.S. waters off Alaska's north coast.
A dramatic first step came in Seattle Thursday as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council unanimously recommended closure of 196,000 square miles of Arctic waters to all commercial fishing.
The decision, broadly supported by environmental and fishing interests, is a complete ban on harvest, and would only be subject to reversal based on a scientific conclusion that a specific fishery and the ecosystem in general could tolerate commercial fishing. The recommendation must be approved by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
U.S. commercial fishing is happily occupied in the resource-rich Bering Strait. The sweep of closure from north of the strait, across the Chukchi and Beaufort seas — from Russia to the Canadian border — has less immediate commercial, if not environmental urgency.
Management of the vast region — keeping foreign vessels out — becomes more problematic in the absence of a full closure of the area to fishing by all parties. As the ice melts and more water is open for longer periods of time, the international tensions about what belongs to whom are mounting.
Long dormant U.S. interest in Law of the Sea conventions are starting to find a pulse. Global warming and melting Arctic ice are fueling interests in guidelines for international behavior on newly opened waters. U.S. State Department representatives were among the audience for the council deliberations.
Advocacy groups, such as Oceana, the Ocean Conservancy and the Pew Environmental Group, argued for a thoughtful plan for the region, guided by science. Combined with the enlightened self-interest of the commercial-fishing organizations, and the emerging international realities, a complete closure made good sense.
The region is not sealed forever, but the next steps will be informed by scientific inquiry that will determine future policy.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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