The Obama administration approved a management plan yesterday for Arctic fisheries that prevents the expansion of commercial fishing into vast swaths of sea whose ice is being melted by rising temperatures.

"As Arctic sea ice recedes due to climate change, there is increasing interest in commercial fishing in Arctic waters," Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said in a statement yesterday. "We are in a position to plan for sustainable fishing that does not damage the overall health of this fragile ecosystem. This plan takes a precautionary approach to any development of commercial fishing in an area where there has been none in the past."

Crafted by the regional fishery management council in Alaska, the new Arctic Fishery Management Plan closes about 150,000 square nautical miles, an area larger than California and five times larger than all national parks combined.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council last winter voted unanimously in favor of the plan, which bars industrial fishing in U.S. waters north of the Bering Strait, including the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

There is currently no significant commercial fishing in the area, but fisheries managers expect it to become a target for commercial fishers chasing cod and snow crab as ice melts and fisheries shift north. The council drafted the plan to protect the area until researchers can determine what fishing is sustainable in the fragile ecosystem.

Fishers and scientists are seeing fish populations shift around Alaska as waters warm. Walleye pollock, the cornerstone of the state's fishing industry, are moving north as temperatures rise. And some fishers have seen Pacific and jack mackerel -- usually found in California waters -- off the southeastern coast of Alaska.

The effort to ban fishing in the northernmost Arctic waters has been endorsed by Audubon Alaska, Oceana, the Ocean Conservancy and the Pew Environment Group.

Environmentalists said today that they hope the administration's approval of the plan is a signal of more precautionary policy for the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Janis Searles Jones, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, called it a "landmark decision" that indicates the tide is turning for Arctic policy.

"The Arctic is our planet's air conditioner, and it plays a key role in regulating global climate," Searles Jones said. "Expanding industrial uses in a region that is poorly understood and already under enormous stress could have dire consequences, not only for the Arctic but for the planet as a whole."

The plan is also backed by Alaska's major commercial fishing group, the Marine Conservation Alliance, which represents about 70 percent of the state's groundfish and crab industry. Alaska fishers hope the plan will pressure Russia and other Arctic nations to close their fisheries and prevent a rush to new fishing grounds that could cause fish populations to crash.

In the 1980s, commercial fishers from around the world flocked to the Bering Sea between U.S. and Russian territory, which was effectively a "doughnut hole" without any fisheries regulations. After nearly a decade of negotiations, an international agreement finally closed it off.

There are major fishing grounds south of the new protected area. Alaska's Bering Sea is the United States' "fish basket," with about 60 percent of U.S. commercial landings, according to the state fishing industry.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500