The United States must move forward with science research to make good decisions about how to manage human activities in the Arctic Ocean, the ambassador for oceans and fisheries said Wednesday.
"The Arctic is certainly the least well understood ocean on the planet, and in particular the area of the western Arctic nearest the United States, the Chukchi and Beaufort seas," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David A. Balton.
Balton spoke at the conclusion of the International Arctic Fisheries Symposium, a gathering aimed at promoting international discussions for conserving and managing future Arctic fisheries. Participants sought to identify gaps in existing management and potential steps to address them.
Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke in August approved a U.S. plan that prohibits expansion of commercial fishing in the U.S. Arctic until more is known about the area. The Arctic Fishery Management Plan was prompted by changes that have come with global warming and the loss of sea ice.
Locke said the goal would be a sustainable fishing plan that would not harm the overall health of the fragile ecosystem.
U.S. commercial fishermen have not been poised to sail north of the Bering Strait for commercial fishing. In Russia, Arctic cod moved north because of warming oceans but commercial fishermen did not follow because they would have had to travel farther, fuel costs were high and fish prices were low, said Viacheslav Zilanov of the Northwest Scientific Research Center of the Sea Policy at Russia's Murmansk State Technical University.
"These issues are much more complicated," Zilanov said through a translator.
Balton said there is time and political space to move smartly. The symposium did not begin the discussion, he said, but raised the issue's profile.
"What this symposium did allow was for a whole mix of people from very different perspectives to come together and talk about a common set of issues, including people from all the other Arctic nations," he said.
He cited a need for "a science agenda collectively with our neighbors in the Arctic" and a way to bring "commitments related to future fisheries" there.
"How that will look, who will be involved, when it will take place, who will pay for it — unknown at this point," he added.
Fish managers, commercial fishermen, conservation organizations and indigenous people living along the Arctic Ocean are looking for a pathway for sustainable fisheries, said Chris Krenz, Arctic project manager for Oceana. The group is dedicated to the health of oceans.
He contrasted that search with what he called an ongoing legal quagmire between interest groups over oil and gas development in the same region.
"There's a tension in the government to try to figure out how to manage things sustainably in the future," Krenz said. "We have two very different, contrasting examples on how to do that."