Arctic Sea Partially Closed To Fishing

The Arctic ice pack is breaking up. Bad news for the global climate, but good news for commercial fishing fleets looking for untapped sources of wild seafood. Not so fast — The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted this week to close the Arctic waters off northern Alaska to fishing. This is in effect until scientists know more about the health and sustainability of the fish living under the now-retreating ice pack

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. Global warming is shrinking the polar ice sheet: bad news for polar bears and, really, bad news for all of us. Here's a small silver lining. It's an opportunity for fishermen. Ice-free summers could open up new fishing grounds in the waters north of Alaska. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle that the people who manage the fishing industry are saying, not so fast.

MARTIN KASTE: Caleb Pongawi(ph) is a native Alaskan from St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. From there, you really can see Russia. He grew up surrounded by the arctic icepack.

Mr. CALEB PONGAWI (Resident, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska): One has to experience being out in the ocean among the ice to feel the peacefulness, the power, of the ice.

KASTE: He says the ice is especially inviting in the spring, when the sun finally comes out again.

Mr. PONGAWI: There's mirages because there's heat from the sun on ice. It's like seeing a city, you know, 100 miles away coming out over the horizon. It's beautiful.

KASTE: But now, that sea ice is thinning. It comes in later in the year, and it breaks up earlier. Pongawi is seeing more ships, barges and oil-company vessels heading north of the Bering Strait, and he wonders if fishing boats are far behind. Jim Ayers of the conservation group Oceana says it may be just a matter of time.

Mr. JIM AYERS (Vice President, Pacific, Oceana): As the ice has been retreating, it's pretty clear that industrial fishing is possible.

KASTE: Environmentalists have been trying for years to stop arctic fishing before it starts, and at a meeting this week in Seattle, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to do just that. Ayers calls it a big victory.

Mr. AYERS: The idea is that it's closed and it will only open when we understand how we might do that in a way that wouldn't have severe impact on an already stressed arctic ecosystem.

KASTE: In other words, no commercial fishing in the arctic until it's been properly studied. The fishing industry supports this decision. Laurie Swanson(ph), who works for companies that run trawlers off the southern coast of Alaska, says her industry isn't exactly poised to moved in to the arctic anyway.

Ms. LAURIE SWANSON (Businesswoman, Southern Alaska): There's not an expectation of fisheries developing soon. I think it's a much more long-term thinking, if the ice were to retreat, if those grounds are accessible, if there are harvestable stocks. But I don't think it's anything that's going to happen quickly.

KASTE: It's a whole lot easier politically to shut down a fishing ground that isn't being used yet. But what happens when those studies are done? Clearly, some environmentalists hope that this will turn into a permanent ban. But the fishing industry sees things differently. Laurie Swanson says this policy is what it says it is: a first step toward establishing a management plan for arctic fishing.

Ms. SWANSON: I think it's a policy call by the nation as to whether it's better to allow no fishing at all or to take a practical view of what is available, what can be safely harvested, and allow a safe and controlled harvest of the resources that are there.

KASTE: Still, as Swanson says, the commercial fishing fleets based here in Seattle and in Alaska are feeling no great rush to expand their range into the Arctic Circle. Conditions are still rough up there, and the ice is still treacherous. But as the arctic keeps warming, that could change quickly, and this new policy is an acknowledgment that the day may come when American fishing boats start casting their nets in the waters that were formerly known as the polar ice cap. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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