ANCHORAGE - The nation's secretary of commerce has approved a plan that would prohibit an expansion of commercial fishing in the Arctic, at least until more is known about the area.
Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke on Thursday approved the Arctic Fishery Management Plan, which was prompted by changes in the Arctic that have come with global warming and the loss of sea ice.
Locke said the goal now is to come up with a sustainable fishing plan that will not harm the overall health of the fragile Arctic ecosystem.
"As Arctic sea ice recedes due to climate change, there is increasing interest in commercial fishing in Arctic waters," Locke said. "This plan takes a precautionary approach to any development of commercial fishing in an area where there has been none in the past."
Some scientists and fishing industry players say it's conceivable that commercially valuable seafood species such as pollock or crab populations could expand in the Arctic, which could draw fishing fleets.
So far, no fishing of any major scale occurs in the Arctic, and the few surveys of fish stocks there don't show large populations.
Locke's decision came a day before Obama administration officials are scheduled to conduct a public hearing in Anchorage on the nation's ocean policy. A task force is developing a recommendation for a policy that officials say ensures protection, maintenance and restoration of oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees the management of fish in federal waters, recommended the Arctic Fishery Management Plan in February. The plan then underwent public review before Locke's approval.
The plan has been hailed by environmentalists and industry representatives alike.
It would prohibit industrial fishing in nearly 200,000 square miles of U.S. waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas until researchers can gather sufficient information on fish and the Arctic marine environment. It identifies Arctic cod, saffron cod and snow crab as species that likely would be targeted by commercial fishermen.
The plan would govern all commercial fishing for all stocks of finfish and shellfish in federal waters in Arctic waters off Alaska, except Pacific salmon and Pacific halibut because they are managed under other authorities. It would not affect fisheries for salmon, whitefish and shellfish in Alaskan waters near the Arctic coastline. The proposed plan would not affect Arctic subsistence fishing or hunting.
The plan also outlines rules for any new Arctic fisheries that could be approved in the future. Among them is a provision that fishermen will be required to keep records to help determine catch, production, price and other information necessary for conservation and management.
Also under the plan, fishermen may be required to carry fisheries observes on board to verify catch and discard numbers, among other requirements.
Locke said the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Service will establish procedures before approving any future fisheries.
The Anchorage Daily News contributed to this article.