WASHINGTON, DC, February 5, 2009 – World Wildlife Fund officials today applauded the decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to ban commercial fishing in U.S. Arctic waters until the potential impacts of such activities are better understood. Recent melting of the Arctic sea ice on a scale unprecedented in modern times has opened up wide swaths of previously inaccessible waters to commercial fishing, oil and gas development and shipping, posing new challenges for resource managers.
“This is a courageous and ethical move by Alaska’s fishermen,” said Bill Fox, vice president of fisheries for World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 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,” said Fox.
”This plan is precautionary and protective, and gives guidance for potential future fisheries development in the Arctic to take a precautionary, protective approach,” said Eric Olson, chairman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Arctic ice cover has been eroding rapidly over the past few years as a result of climate change, which is having a devastating impact on the region. The Arctic is warming at nearly twice the global average, causing summer sea ice to melt to record low levels in recent years. Since the 1980s, summer sea ice extent has been reduced by more than 40 percent, opening more than half a million square miles 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 in extremely unpredictable shifts in the locations and productivity of fish populations.
The ban announced today applies only to the U.S. Arctic, which comprises just a small proportion of Arctic waters. “We urge other Arctic countries to follow the lead of the United States,” said Fox. “Many of the fish stocks and other elements of the marine ecosystem cross more than one country’s jurisdiction and while the U.S. move is necessary, 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,” Fox said.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has jurisdiction to set fishing quotas and regulations within U.S. waters off the coast of Alaska.