A plan that puts a large area of the Arctic off-limits to commercial fishing goes into effect Dec. 3, federal officials said.
The plan was approved by Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke in August.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday that the plan establishes an orderly process to consider requests to develop fisheries in the Arctic, and it provides time for science to catch up to changing Arctic conditions, specifically global warming and the loss of sea ice.
Environmentalists agreed. "We need a rush of scientists into the Arctic, not an armada of cargo ships, oil platforms and fishing trawlers," said Chris Krenz, Arctic project manager for conservation group Oceana.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council began looking at management options for the Arctic three years ago. It was feared that the loss of sea ice would open up areas of the Arctic where previously there had been no commercial fishing.
The council ultimately decided to take a proactive, precautionary approach. It voted to prohibit commercial fishing until more is known about the Arctic marine environment.
The plan governs commercial fishing for all stocks of finfish and shellfish in federal waters, except Pacific salmon and Pacific halibut because they are managed under other authorities.
The plan does not affect fisheries for salmon, whitefish and shellfish in Alaskan waters near the Arctic shore. It does not affect subsistence fishing and hunting in the Arctic.
It will prohibit industrial fishing in nearly 200,000 square miles of U.S. waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
The plan received the support of the Marine Conservation Alliance, an industry group representing the seafood, groundfish and crab industries in Alaska.
Dave Benton, the alliance's executive director, said other nations are interested in exploring the potential of the central Arctic for fishing, and having the United States in a leadership role and closing commercial fisheries north of the Bering Strait sets a good example.
"It sets the foundation for negotiation and confirms the United States' leadership role to engage the international community to put a moratorium in place in the international waters of the central high Arctic," Benton said.
More baseline data on the Arctic is needed, said Glenn Sheehan, executive director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, a group dedicated to increasing collaboration between scientists and the community.
"You can't manage an environment if you don't understand it," Sheehan said.