WASHINGTON — For Arctic nations, one of the so-called "benefits" of global warming has been the promise of opening up new fisheries in a remote part of the world choked by ice much of the year.
But many worry that the new territory is also an unregulated one, and that if the United States doesn't act in the next few years, rogue fishermen from other nations could begin plying areas north of the Bering Strait in the summer, looking for new, unexploited fisheries.
So far, there are no major commercial fisheries in the area of the Arctic Ocean closest to Alaska, said David Balton, the assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries at the State Department's Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science.
Yet "as the climate changes, the ice recedes, the water warms, we should be expecting and anticipating that there could be major commercial fisheries north of the Bering Strait," Balton testified at a recent Senate Commerce Committee meeting.
The United States needs to make an aggressive case for managing those Arctic Ocean fisheries before the ice thins enough for fishing vessels to access them in the summer without ice-breaking equipment, said U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
"It's time that we really worked on really an aggressive approach to protect the Arctic," he said.
There are just two or three years left to develop a plan, Stevens said. That will include talking to Russian counterparts to come up with a way to manage vessel traffic through the Bering Strait, said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Arthur Brooks, who oversees the Alaska region.
The United States also needs an aggressive — yet cooperative — approach with both Russia and Canada on the issue, said Lisa Speer, of the Water and Oceans Program with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Having a larger engagement with the Russians over the future of the Arctic is going to be very important," Speer said. "I don't know how to make that happen other than to have a much higher level engagement than we have now."
Norway has not been entirely successful in preventing illegal fishing in some parts of the Arctic Ocean to its north, said David Benton, executive director of the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance.
"When you look at the Arctic Basin, sort of look at the map, looking down from the top, we've got a real challenge ahead of us now," Benton said. "It seems to me we need to up the ante here. Time is not on our side."
Already, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees fisheries off Alaska's coast, has proposed that all federal waters in the Arctic Ocean be off limits to commercial fishing.
Those waters should remain closed until there's a stock assessment and a way to "do it smartly and in a sustainable fashion," said Stevens spokesman Steve Wackowski.
In October, the Senate passed a resolution urging the United States to begin international negotiations to manage Arctic Ocean fisheries.
Until any agreements are in place, the United States will not support any efforts to expand commercial fishing in international waters of the Arctic Ocean.
Unlike other major fishing nations and other Arctic nations, the United States hasn't yet ratified the Law of the Sea convention.
To do so would give the United States more leverage in fighting illegal fishing, including future fisheries in the Arctic Ocean, said Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte in testimony at the Commerce Committee hearing.
Stevens said he hopes to establish regulations for Arctic fishing in the same way he worked in the 1990s to ban high-seas drift net fishing.
Then, Stevens said, he worked with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to make a case in front of the United Nations to ban the practice worldwide.
It may be time to take the same approach to the unregulated fishing grounds north of Alaska, Stevens said.
"A senator can't rush up to the U.N. and say, 'Look guys, listen to me,' " Stevens said.
"It has to be a representative of his country. They have to be behind the senator before that takes place, so I hope we can go from here and then to the Cabinet and then to the president and then to the U.N."