All U.S. waters north of the Bering Strait may soon be closed to commercial fishing. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council—the government body charged with administering Alaskan waters—voted unanimously in Seattle today to close 196,000 square miles (507,600 square kilometers) of ocean to any fishing.

"This will close the Arctic to all commercial fishing," says Jim Ayers, vice president for Pacific and Arctic affairs at ocean conservation organization Oceana, based in Juneau, who testified before the vote. "This is the beginning of a concept of large protected marine areas."

These seas—U.S. territorial waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas—are not currently fished, but sea ice melt and the northward migration of certain fish species, such as salmon, raises the possibility that they would be in the not too distant future. This vote precludes that possibility unless scientific studies showed that such fishing would not harm Arctic ecosystems or the traditional lifestyle of indigenous populations.

"There is at present too little known about how marine ecosystems function in the Arctic, let alone how they will respond to the dramatic changes in progress, to prescribe safe harvest levels for living marine resources in the U.S. Arctic," 43 marine scientists said in a letter to the Council chair. "Until the rate and likely duration of sea ice losses as well as the ensuing ecosystem responses are better understood, closing the U.S. Arctic to commercial fishing is a prudent measure."

The vote requires the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to issue a report and the Secretary of Commerce is expected to officially seal the deal as early as this fall. The U.S. Department of State noted at the meeting that this kind of decision provided the needed guidance to formulate a national policy for the Arctic.  "This gives [the State Department] what they need to engage in conversations with Russia and Canada," Ayers says. And the Marine Conservation Alliance, a Juneau-based fishing industry group, agrees that the area should be closed.

Although this is good news for fish, it does not mean that the Arctic is free from industrial threats. The Bush administration sold leases for oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi Sea to Shell, and global warming is wreaking havoc by melting sea ice, softening permafrost and even eroding villages and towns. That  prompted towns in Alaska like Shishmaref to file a lawsuit requiring a reduction in greenhouse gases to preserve their traditional way of life. Other nations, such as Norway, have already begun fishing in newly opened Arctic waters—meaning the U.S.-controlled zone could be a very small refuge unless the government can persuade the seven other nations with Arctic Ocean claims to follow suit.

But it does represent the first time that a fishery has been protected before it has nearly disappeared. "[Fishing] laws in the U.S. are set up to just go and fish and then deal with the collapse, like what happened in New England," Ayers says. "This is a chance for the U.S. and other nations to actually stop and think about the Arctic Ocean as different than the Mediterranean, Atlantic or Pacific, where we've decimated fisheries and only afterwards worried about saving them."