During the 1960s and early ‘70s, over 1,000 minimally-regulated foreign vessels fished the high seas off Alaska. Alaska fishermen confronted this unruly armada and allied with peers across the nation to demand protection for America’s fishery resources.
Together, they persuaded Congress to act: In 1976, the law now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act extended US fisheries authority beyond 12 miles from shore, reaching 200 miles out to sea. The Magnuson Act established regional Fishery Management Councils to govern harvests in this vast ocean domain.
Off Alaska, America's largest and most coveted fish stocks came under oversight of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The Council promptly halted overfishing, rebuilt depleted groundfish stocks, and instituted regulations to begin the transition to a responsible domestic groundfish fleet.
Today the challenge to managers is broader: to conserve not just fish stocks, but whole ecosystems, recognizing that people and marine species depend on them.
The Marine Conservation Alliance, representing, communities, fishermen and processors. who depend on healthy oceans in the region, has identified seven principles of ecosystem management (illustrated below) that operate in these fisheries. These principles are visible in every rule crafted by the Council, as evidenced by the extensive network of Marine Protected Areas shown in the Closure Maps below.
Do managers have the jurisdiction and data required to control fisheries that affect the ecosystem?
Do managers prevent overfishing on both target and non-target species?
Do managers protect habitats and life on the seafloor?
Do managers protect non-fish species from fishing impacts?
Do managers limit fishing effects on marine foodwebs?
Do managers adjust fishing rules when environmental change affects stocks?
Closures are one means of achieving Ecosystem Based Fishery Management (EBFM) principles. This interactive map illustrates the dozens of federally established closed areas around Alaska. At the bottom of the map, a row of buttons (Principles 1 through 7) leads to maps of the federal closures associated with each EBFM principle recognized by the Marine Conservation Alliance.
Closures are classified here by their primary purpose as documented in public records, but it’s worth observing that many closed areas were created with multiple purposes in mind. A casual observer will quickly notice that there is no master plan to this matrix. Many of the closed areas overlap, as do their aims. That’s to be expected: they were created piecemeal, each in response to a particular concern at the time.
Still, it’s possible to discern the arc of a maturing art form in these closures. In the early years of US jurisdiction over the North Pacific, closed areas were mainly established to limit bycatch, gear conflicts, and potential for overfishing by foreign ships. Those fleets were finally phased out as part of the “Americanization” of US fishery resources, leaving the industry managers, and communities to work out their shared priorities together, mainly through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Thus over time, closures have evolved to reflect a deepening understanding of marine ecosystems and environmental change, and a growing toolkit for sustainable harvest methods.