Web posted Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Fish Board backs drafting of marine reserve policy

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Board of Fisheries has voted unanimously in support of drafting a policy on the protection of marine areas.

Such marine reserves can include broad swaths of ocean, often closed to human activities, including commercial fishing, dredging and oil production. The goal is to foster biodiveristy or, in some cases, to help particular species recover from overfishing, pollution or other threats.

In some of these marine reserves, all such activities may be restricted. Other areas may be recognized as a protected but have no management limitations. It's much like an underwater national park, monument or grassland, where rules and uses vary.

The Alaska policy will be developed over fall and winter by a steering committee that includesscientists, fishermen, conservationists, two members of the Board of Fisheries and 10 people representing various regions of the state. Staffers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will also be on the panel.

The Board of Fisheries, meeting in Anchorage, voted 7-0 Saturday to pursue the concept of marine protected areas. Nominations for the steering committee will be taken until Nov. 27. The board expects to seat the panel at its Dec. 5-6 meeting in Anchorage. The goal is to have a draft policy ready by March. It's unlikely the state would adopt a final policy before 2004, board members said.

Marine protected areas are a management tool for ocean conservation that have been around for years. They got a major boost in May 2000 when President Clinton signed an executive order directing federal agencies to strength marine protected areas by working closely with states, local governments, tribes and other interested parties. The Bush administration has since indicated that it intends to proceed with the policy.

In July, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released a report that made recommendations for a public process that would lead to marine protection zones. It didn't suggest any particular areas or stocks that need special protection, said Doug Woodby, chairman of a state task force on the issue.

At the recent board meeting, state commercial fisheries director Doug Mecum stressed the importance of letting stakeholders drive the process.

''You need the public buy-in. Otherwise it's not going to go anywhere,'' Mecum said.

Tom Gemmell, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, noted that tens of thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea have been closed to commercial fishing, based on scientific research that underscored the need. Overall, he's not opposed to the idea of marine protected areas, as long as the research proves there's a need.

''If there's a real legitimate need to do it, we'd probably support it. But if it's just pie in the sky, we probably wouldn't,'' Gemmell said.