The Arctic Ocean faces changes unparalleled on the planet. Over the last 100 years, the Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the Earth. Since the 1950s, an area of sea ice almost half the size of the continental United States has melted. Many species that rely on this icebased ecosystem, such as polar bears, walrus, spectacled eiders, bowhead whales and ribbon seals face significant environmental stress; some are already listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
There are no commercial fisheries north of the Bering Strait at present because, historically, sea ice has blocked access. At the current rate of melting, however, commercial fisheries in the Arctic Ocean could soon become a reality. If allowed, this may harm vital habitats for marine mammals, fish and birds, and directly compete with Arctic native communities that depend on the oceans and these species for survival.
The North Pacific council recently voted unanimously to close federal waters in the U.S. Arctic to commercial fishing. The plan would close waters north of the Bering Strait to commercial fishing, until or unless science shows that such activities will not harm the fragile ecosystem or the local people who subsist on the bounty of the Arctic. The next vital step is for the Secretary of Commerce to make a final decision on implementing the new plan. If approved by the Secretary, the Arctic Fishery Management Plan will also establish an important precedent for other nations whose territorial waters encompass parts of the vast Arctic Ocean.