Some of the most fragile and productive fishing grounds in America received a possible respite last week, in a precedent-setting development that could prove critical to the United States and the world.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a decision-making body that helps manage fisheries in federal waters off the coast of Alaska, took a major first step to protect the Arctic from the onslaught of climate change.
The council recommended closing approximately 195,000 square miles of U.S. ocean to fishing, an area the size of Spain. If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, it will be the most sweeping effort by any U.S. resource management agency to date to proactively protect the Arctic marine ecosystem. It also establishes an important model for other nations whose territorial waters encompass parts of the Arctic Ocean, a vast region that is both unique and at risk.
The Arctic is shaped by only two seasons -- winter and summer. Months of darkness with temperatures hovering around 29 degrees below zero give way to the land of the midnight sun -- a fleeting, luxuriant summer where abundant food supplies support great populations of globally significant wildlife.
The Arctic Ocean is home to iconic marine mammals such as polar bears, narwhals, bowhead whales, walrus and ringed seals, which are remarkably well-adapted to these extremes and are found nowhere else on earth. Millions of birds and various species of whales migrate great distances to the Arctic to raise their young and sustain their populations on the explosive summer burst of food. More than 100 key species of fish, including Arctic cod, capelin, herring and krill, underpin the region's marine food chain, supporting these vital ecosystems.
To maintain the resilience of the Arctic marine environment, it is critically important to protect the food web, which is particularly vulnerable to disruption. Historically, most of the Arctic Ocean has been inaccessible to industrial fishing fleets, but this is no longer true. The ice that once covered the Arctic is literally melting away as a result of climate change, and is disappearing more rapidly than scientific models ever predicted. Overall, polar sea ice shrank to less than half of its normal minimum area in 2007. Perennial sea ice -- the thick, year-round blanket that normally makes up 50 to 60 percent of Arctic ice -- also shrank in the winter of 2007-2008 by more than 1 million square miles, half its normal level. Leading scientists now predict that within the next 10 years the polar ice cap could disappear entirely during the summer months.
Not only will the massive reduction in polar sea ice bring enormous changes to the Arctic marine ecosystem, it has already opened the door to large-scale development. The race is now on among nations and extractive industries to claim and exploit the region's suddenly available resources. Retreating sea ice is creating vast new opportunities for industrial fishing, commercial shipping and oil and gas development. Together with climate change, all of these could bring significant, lasting and adverse effects to the highly fragile Arctic marine environment.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council recommended against opening up large parts of the U.S. Arctic Ocean to commercial fishing, unless and until a plan can be developed that shows it can occur without damaging the health of the marine ecosystem or harming the subsistence way of life of native peoples who live there. The decision is a wise one. Swift approval by the Obama administration will place the United States in a leadership role in Arctic conservation, and will send an important signal to other countries with Arctic territory.
Industrial activities such as commercial fishing, especially in areas with highly fragile environments like the Arctic Ocean, should be prohibited unless they can be shown not to pose significant adverse consequences. We still have a window of opportunity to try to minimize damage to the Arctic, but that window will not be open for long. We should take advantage of it while we can.
Joshua Reichert is the managing director of the Pew Environment Group.