Our view: Fishing in the Arctic

Feds say commercial operations must await more information

May 31, 2009 

As ice cover in Alaska's Arctic waters shrinks, it opens virgin territory for commercial fishing to exploit. Before a new "rush for fish" starts, the federal government is moving to keep commercial fishing out of Arctic waters until we know more about the ecology of the region. It's the right call.

Fishing boats are not yet gearing up to pillage the unregulated waters of Alaska's Arctic -- but the potential is there. The council that oversees federal fisheries in Alaska knows it can't responsibly manage commercial fishing in Arctic waters without good information, and that information is sorely lacking.

Even before rapid ice melting started, researchers knew little about marine life in Alaska's northernmost seas and how fishing might affect it.

From limited studies, what they did know is that fish counts in the high Arctic are highly variable. Surveys for several species in 1990 and 1991 produced numbers that varied by a factor of three or four from the previous year. Changing climate and the prospect of major oil and gas development add even more uncertainty about what will happen in Arctic waters and how commercial fishing might fit in.

So often in history, humankind has rushed forward and exploited the environment, only to learn later that unlimited abuse leads to catastrophe, for both nature and people. This is a rare case where humans are getting ahead of the curve, before environmental trouble develops.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council did its part by recommending the temporary commercial fishing closure in the Arctic. Now it's up to U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to officially adopt this helpful approach and ensure Alaska's Arctic waters are protected.

BOTTOM LINE: The feds are making a good call on this one.

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