Alaska Senators Want Closure of Arctic ‘Donut Hole’

By Bob Tkacz

July 2011

Concerned that accelerated ice melt could open the way to an Arctic Ocean rerun of the overfishing that decimated pollock stocks in the Bering Sea “donut hole,” Alaska’s US senators are pressing the State Department to negotiate a moratorium with other Arctic countries on commercial fishing in the Arctic high seas until a “multilateral regime exists for managing such fisheries properly.”

In a May 10 letter Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D) urged Sec. of State Hillary Clinton to “increase the administration’s efforts to secure an international agreement.”

“It is our firm belief securing such an agreement should be a top priority for the United States as it implements its Arctic policy. The waters just north of the US and Russian EEZs are experiencing significant loss of multi-year sea ice. Much of this area is of fishable depth, the waters are open for several months each year now, and research is being conducted in these waters by non-coastal states already. Exploratory fishing may not be far behind,” the senators wrote.

Murkowski may have hand-delivered the letter to Clinton. The two, with Interior Sec. Ken Salazar comprised the US delegation to the biennial ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, in Nuuk, Greenland, May 12. Murkowski made history as the first member of Congress to attend a top-level meeting of the organization of countries that border the Arctic Ocean.

Council members include Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the US.

“It was music to my ears to hear Sec. Clinton say to the assembled ministry that the United States is an Arctic nation, due to Alaska, and as an Arctic nation we had a role and a responsibility,” Murkowski said at a May 13 news teleconference. Murkowski did not mention the Arctic donut hole fishery closure proposal during the news conference but said, “It was made very, very clear that the race in the Arctic is really one of cooperation, more of a race for sustainable management.”

Clinton briefly raised the issue of Arctic fisheries during talks in Nuuk, according to Begich’s office.

Back channel international discussions among Arctic diplomats, including Alaskans, and the PEW Trust, are apparently under way to begin generating support for the treaty and some concern, if not outright opposition, has been encountered.

“I do know the Norwegians have concerns about this,” said a senatorial source involved in the initiative authorized to speak only on background.

Neither Begich nor Murkowski responded to a request for an on-the-record comment.

More specifics on Norway’s concerns are expected in the next few weeks, but an ongoing issue among Arctic Council members, has been the level of regulation that could or should be adopted.

As a group the Arctic Council has rejected calls from some non-Arctic countries to address future management through an international regime based on the Antarctic model.

The signal accomplishment of the Nuuk meeting was the adoption of an agreement for cooperation and coordination of maritime and aerial search and rescue activities. The pact is the first binding agreement of the Council, which also announced the establishment of permanent secretariat, to be headquartered in Tromso, Norway, “to increase the ability of the Arctic Council to address future challenges in the region.”

The refusal of some of Murkowski’s most reactionary fellow Senate Republicans to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty has left the US unable to participate in the process to expand its exclusive economic zone beyond the current 200-mile limit, on the Arctic or any other coast. Ratification of the treaty is not necessary for membership in the Arctic Council and the Alaska senators said a fishery moratorium at the top of the world “is a logical extension of, and complimentary to” the US Arctic moratorium adopted in 2009 at the recommendation of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

“Securing such an agreement would also be consistent with existing international law and policy, including the 1995 Fish Stock Agreement, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization Code of Conduct and international efforts to curtail illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing,” the senators wrote.

The issue is not a new one for the Council, which discussed timing and need for an Arctic fishery management plan at an international conference in Anchorage in 2009.

“It’s clear that we need to move forward with some science agenda with our neighbors in the Arctic. I don’t yet have a clear idea how best we should structure this and in parallel we need to be figuring out some set of commitments or understandings or general principles about how to approach future fisheries that will come to the Arctic maybe only years from now,” said the senior US ambassador for oceans issues at the conclusion of the gathering.

“Ultimately if fisheries are to be established in the central Arctic region there certainly will need to be some international management structure. I don’t yet have a sense of the timing. If it’s 30 or 40 years from now probably it’s premature to be talking about that. If it’s five or ten years from now, no. We need to be talking about that right now,” added Ambassador David Balton.

Murkowski and Begich sent their fisheries aids to the conference and both suggested fisheries management questions needed further discussion.

“I’m hoping we’ll go back to DC and we’ll be able to sit down with the State Department and talk about what can we do to work together to implement some of these things whether it’s international research programs that we can all work together on multilaterally,” said Arne Fuglvog, aid to Sen. Murkowski, following the session.

“My preference is to be proactive just as the council was but I can understand their perspectives. The fact that we’re talking about this now is a positive step because at least it’s on everybody’s radar screen. If we do see activity going into those international waters and the like I think people will be poised to take action. I would hope they would,” said Begich aid Bob King, at that time.

Fish stock surveys and other research preparatory for Arctic oil and gas exploration released at the conference reported the first known occurrence of legal size opilio crab, undersize pollock, sea urchins, cucumbers and huge volumes of Brittle starfish.

Since 2009 concerns with the real level of harvest that has been occurring in the Arctic in the near and more distant past have been raised. A University of British Columbia study, published early this year in the journal “Polar Biology” estimated that from 1950 and 2006, 89,000 tons of fish were caught in Alaskan coastal waters in the Arctic and 94,000 tons in Canadian waters, but neither Canada nor the United States supplied that data to the U.N.

The study said some 770,000 tons of fish were caught in Russian waters off Siberia while only 12,700 tons were reported to the UN.

Dirk Zeller, the study’s lead researcher at UBC said, in a Reuters account that ineffective reporting “has given us a false sense of comfort that the Arctic is still a pristine frontier when it comes to fisheries.”

Bob Tkacz can be reached at