Alaska officials prepare for possible commercial fishing expansion into Arctic waters

Bans on commercial fishing in U.S. and international Arctic waters have been lauded as admirable preemptive actions that protect vulnerable resources before they are damaged by exploitation.

But now the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is preparing for a time when the 14-year-old moratorium on commercial fishing in federal Arctic waters is lifted.

The department is seeking $1 million in state general funds and another $2 million in federal funds to work on research to better understand those Arctic waters in the event that commercial fisheries are conducted there, Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said last month.

As fish stocks move north around the circumpolar north — and fishing fleets from other countries follow them — Alaska should not be left out, Vincent-Lang said during a panel discussion at the Arctic Encounter Symposium being held in Anchorage.

“We see opportunities for our coastal communities to develop fisheries. And we certainly don’t want to be left onshore while Russia and other countries go out and fish those waters,” he said.

Planning involves scientific research to identify biomasses and stocks north of the Bering Strait, he said. “But we also need to get started on what a fishery management looks like,” he said, referring to a system for determining participants and possibly allocating shares by community.

“We’re starting to think through those processes. We’re starting to do that work,” he said.

For now, there is no commercial fishing in U.S. federal waters north of the Bering Strait, though there are some small commercial harvests in state waters above the Arctic Circle.

The moratorium on commercial fishing in U.S. Arctic waters was approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2009.

However, some fish stocks have shifted northward as the Bering Sea and similar Arctic marginal seas have warmed. The shifts, with some species like Pacific cod and pollock moving northward and other species like snow crab getting crowded out, are part of a wider pattern that scientists call “borealization.”

In Russian waters of the Chukchi Sea, pollock stocks have been big enough in recent years to prompt the government to open a commercial fishery there in 2020. It was the first commercial harvest of pollock in the Chukchi. However, some Russian scientists have warned that the fishery may not be sustainable.

A more sweeping international agreement signed in 2018 put a moratorium on commercial fishing in the international waters of the Arctic Ocean, a High North area dubbed the Central Arctic “donut hole.” Ten governments, including Russia and the European Union, signed onto the agreement, which went into effect in 2021 and will bar commercial fishing for at least 16 years.

The Arctic fishing agreement is one of the few areas in which the U.S. and Russia remain engaged, with a meeting held in Utqiagvik earlier this month to work on a joint science plan.

“There are still big challenges, but there will not be commercial fisheries in this area for at least the life of the agreement, which is 16 years,” David Balton, a former State Department diplomat who helped negotiate the agreement, said at the Arctic Encounter Symposium panel discussion. The moratorium will be extended in five-year increments, unless any of the parties object, he said.

“It’s quite a success story,” said Balton, who is now executive director of the White House’s Arctic Executive Steering Committee.

The is a donor-funded independent news organization in Alaska.


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