Vast areas of the Arctic Ocean are now officially no-go areas for commercial fishermen.
In an unprecedented move, the US Commerce Department has backed a plan to close large portions of the Arctic Ocean within federal jurisdiction, even though the region currently sees little fishing activity.
"This is an historic decision," says Marilyn Heiman, who heads the Arctic program for the Pew Environment Group, based in Washington, D.C. "This is the first time the government has protected an entire ecosystem before commercial fishing is allowed."
The plan, which US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke approved on Aug. 20, comes in anticipation of the Arctic Ocean becoming largely ice-free for much of the summer – a condition scientists trace to global warming, compounded by a natural swing in wind patterns that drive large chunks of sea ice out of the Arctic Ocean into the Atlantic during the summer.
Exceptions to the no-fishing policy include fisheries within the state of Alaska's jurisdiction, which extends three miles offshore; Pacific salmon and Pacific halibut, which already are regulated under a different regime; and subsistence hunting and fishing.
The plan was developed by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, one of eight regional councils that manage fisheries between the three-mile limit for state jurisdiction and the 200-mile limit for exclusive US economic use. It draws its members from the federal government, representatives from Alaska, Washington, and Oregon state governments, commercial and recreational fishing interests, and the general public.
Proponents of the plan say they hope the government will apply this precautionary approach to other activities aimed at exploiting resources under an increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean. Among these: drilling for oil and gas on the continental shelves, increased ship traffic across the top of the world, and mining undersea ore deposits.
The ban isn't permanent. The council's plan envisions opening the waters to fishing on a sustainable basis, though this would happen only after scientists gather the information about fish populations and their role in the Arctic's marine ecosystem.
That could take a while.
"What we know about fisheries in the Arctic is dismal," says Stanley Senner, executive director of the Alaska Audubon Society.
Until now, thick sheets of summer Arctic ice have obscured any need for the data, because fish and shellfish stocks were vulnerable only to subsistence fishing, seals, walruses, and polar bears.
To fill the information vacuum, Congress is considering legislation that would ask the National Research Council to conduct a year-long study to highlight the most significant gaps in knowledge necessary to manage Arctic marine ecosystems.
Once the gaps are identified, it could take another four to eight years of research to fill them, Mr. Senner estimates, if the government undertakes the kind of exhaustive surveys it conducted on the outer continental shelves in the 1970s and 1980s – the last time such data were gathered for the Arctic.
However, the fisheries management plan exposes another problem. It notes that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Coast Guard will be responsible for enforcing the management plan. In addition the Coast Guard also will be responsible for responding to emergencies such as oil spills or trawlers in trouble.
But the Coast Guard's Arctic capabilities fall short of the need, says the US Coast Guard's commandant, Adm. Thad Allen.
"Forward operating locations there are slim to none, the operating conditions up there are very harsh, the command, control, and communications backbone is very thin, and there's a paucity of navigational aids," Admiral Allen says.
If an icebreaker is steaming off Alaska's North Slope, the nearest place to refuel is Kodiak Island, roughly 1,000 miles away.
The lack of these capabilities may bolster the case for a go-slow approach to opening the America's patch of the Arctic Ocean to other forms of industrial exploitation, ocean-policy specialists suggest.
Follow us on Twitter.