IUCN’s Global Marine Programme is delighted by the Obama administration’s recent approval of a management plan that prevents the expansion of commercial fishing in the Arctic, a decision that marks a huge step in the conservation of marine resources.
The new Arctic Fishery Management Plan, announced by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, will protect a 200,000-square-mile area in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas from all new commercial fishing. Before such activities are allowed in the future, scientific studies must be undertaken to determine the nature and extent of indigenous fish stocks and how they interact in their unique and fragile Arctic ecosystem, which is already under stress from warming temperatures, melting sea ice and acidifying ocean waters. Once research has been carried out, conservation and management decisions are to be put in place which will include restrictions on catch levels, fishing gear, discarded fish and areas permitted for fishing with appropriate monitoring.
Although there is currently no significant commercial fishing in this area, rapidly retreating sea ice threatens to open the Arctic to fishers following species that are moving northward as sea temperatures rise. Pacific and jack mackerel, which usually prefer the waters off California, have been sighted off the southeastern coast of Alaska, alongside Arctic cod, pollock and salmon.
“This action serves as a great example to other states of a precautionary fisheries management step that can be used until appropriate scientific work allows for suitable conservation and management strategies which include the necessary considerations for the successful conservation of dependent and related species and ecosystems,” explains Dr. Harlan Cohen, IUCN’s Senior Ocean Governance Advisor.
The order, recommended by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council in February, restricts any future commercial fishing for finfish and shellfish but does not apply to Pacific salmon and Pacific halibut which are managed under other existing arrangements. It also permits Native Alaskans to continue subsistence fishing in the region.
The announcement by the U.S. Commerce Secretary was welcomed by both environmental and fisheries leaders. According to the New York Times, Alaska fishers are hopeful that the announcement will encourage other Arctic countries to close areas subject to their jurisdiction and prevent a rush to new fishing grounds that could cause fish populations to crash.
“This is a very positive move,” states Dan Laffoley, Vice Chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) - Marine. “This presents an unprecedented opportunity to consider further long-term conservation measures and prevent further exploitation in what will be the first ocean basin to progressively acidify and the last unexploited ocean on Earth. We stand to learn from this what will happen to other oceans around the world in due course.”
The closure will also allow for consideration of modern ocean management principles on an ecosystem basis, including marine spatial planning to avoid or mitigate conflicts among users. Arctic countries should take the lead to ensure that a regional fisheries management arrangement is in place to conserve and manage any fisheries in areas beyond national jurisdiction that may take place in the future.