In the wake of dramatically dwindling populations of salmon and other fish, U.S. officials are grappling with ways to cut their losses—and stave off future damage. Overfishing and environmental damage have decimated ocean inhabitants—and climate change threatens to hurt them even more. Just this month, the Pacific Fishery Management Council in Portland, Ore., closed the coasts of California and Oregon to salmon fishing after observing an alarming drop in the species population there, which plummeted in just one river—the Sacramento— from hundreds of thousands in the 1990s to just about 58,000 this past fall.
"Historically, in many places in the world, what humankind has done is rushed into the ocean and harvested, trawled and discarded ocean fish until a fishery collapsed," says Jim Ayers, vice president, Pacific, of the conservation group Oceana. "That is managing based on collapse," or only protecting a fishery after it has dwindled or disappeared, like the cod fishery off the Atlantic coast of Canada.
Meanwhile, there is a new fishery of sorts opening in the Arctic, thanks to sea ice receding from the north coast of Alaska that is making way for new fish hangouts. Salmon, among other fish, are beginning to show up north of the Bering Strait as they migrate in search of cooler waters that are disappearing in the more southern parts of the ocean. The catch: commercial fishing boats will follow, unless all fishing north of the Bering Strait is banned as proposed by scientists, environmentalists and even the fishing industry itself.
"We don't know the full scope and effect as sea ice recedes and climate changes," says David Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, a Juneau, Alaska–based industry group. "We need to close the Arctic until we understand what the effects are going to be in the environment."
The plan, set to be considered by the Anchorage-based North Pacific Fishery Management Council (one of eight regional councils that manage U.S. fisheries) in June, would close waters within 345 miles (555 kilometers) of the Alaskan coast to all fishing—except subsistence and small-scale commercial crab fisheries, according to Bill Wilson, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration official charged with coordinating the effort. "The intent," he says, "is to close Arctic [exclusive economic zone] waters off Alaska" pending further study on the potential dangers to the variety of fish species already present and to those that might migrate into the region.
The move is designed to avoid future bans after fishing has begun, like those that followed overfishing with drift nets, bottom trawlers and in the so-called "doughnut hole" between Russian- and U.S.-exclusive waters in the Bering Sea.
It would also allow for a protected area in which fish imperiled by changing ecosystems might find a refuge. "New species are coming in, maybe they will thrive if we don't hammer them," Ayers says. "It will allow them to survive until we figure out how to reduce our carbon dioxide and its impact on the planet."
The ban would apply to all types of fish, from smaller so-called forage fish such as capelin to commercial species such as salmon or pollock. But the refuge will be relatively small unless the U.S. can also convince its Arctic neighbors—Canada, Russia and others—to follow suit, both for themselves and for the fleets of other nations that they might allow into their waters. "There are very large fleets from other parts of the world that, if it opened up, could go there," Benton notes. "We need to get a handle on those fleets before they get too large."
The council may impose a ban as early as this fall, according to Benton. The U.S. Senate last year adopted a resolution—which states the sense of lawmakers's position and recommendations to the president but has no legal clout—calling on the U.S. to take the lead in international negotiations to craft an agreement to manage Arctic fisheries. But some countries, such as Norway, have already begun to fish in Arctic waters. It remains to be seen whether management only after a collapse can be avoided in the newly ice-free areas of the Arctic Ocean.
"The Arctic is feeling this before anybody else and it's traumatic and it could be tragic. The rest of the world isn't seeing it yet," Ayers says, noting that villages are already planning to pull back from eroding coasts, animal patterns are changing and, of course, sea ice might disappear in summer within the next few decades. "As goes the Arctic, so goes the planet."