Commercial fishing is off-limits in the Beaufort Sea, according to a new agreement between the federal government and the Inuvialuit people of the western Arctic.

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An ulu, a traditional Inuit cutting tool, is seen on a table with Arctic char in Iqaluit in this 2009 photo. Like in the eastern Arctic, char is fished by the Inuvialuit people in the Beaufort Sea. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

The memorandum of understanding, which both parties signed Friday in Inuvik, N.W.T., is the first step towards a comprehensive ocean management plan in the Beaufort Sea.

The agreement prohibits any new licences from being issued for commercial fishing in the Beaufort Sea at least until the management plan is developed and implemented — a process that could take years.

Commercial fishing does not usually happen in the Beaufort Sea, but melting sea ice have opened up Arctic waterways to more fishing and commercial traffic.

Preventing a fishing rush

For many years, Arctic char and other fish species in the Beaufort Sea and other northern waterways had been protected by thick layers of sea ice that were dangerous for fishing and other marine vessels.

'We don't want to wake up some morning … and find a big, rusty Korean fishing boat offshore.'—Burton Ayles

But the Northwest Passage has become more ice-free recently, which has led to more cruise ships, sailboats and commercial shipping and fishing vessels coming north.

The Beaufort Sea fishing ban is being put in place before there is a rush to create a new commercial fishery, according to federal and Inuvialuit officials.

"We don't want to wake up some morning in [Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.] and find a big, rusty Korean fishing boat offshore," said fisheries scientist Burton Ayles, a member of the Fisheries Joint Management Committee, which consists of federal and Inuvialuit representatives.

With fish stocks in steep decline around the world, Ayles said Inuvialuit and others living near the Beaufort Sea do not want the region to be overfished.

Temporary commercial fishing permits that were issued in the Beaufort Sea over the past 10 years have not worked out well, Ayles said.

"They didn't always report back properly on what they were harvesting," he said.

Fragile ecosystem

Nellie Cournoyea, chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corp., said the Beaufort Sea ecosystem is too fragile to accommodate large boats with fishing nets.

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The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent makes its way through the ice in Baffin Bay in 2008. Arctic waterways have increasingly become ice-free in recent years, opening them up to more marine traffic. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

Cournoyea said not much is known about fish populations in the area, but people in the area do know that fish is a vital food source for other marine species.

"There's a cautionary approach to this because it all has to come into balance," she said.

"You wouldn't want to create a fishery that would take away from that food stock of the whales or the seals or the other species that live offshore."

Frank Pokiak of the Inuvialuit Game Council said people in the region would rather see Inuvialuit people participating in small-scale traditional fisheries than large-scale commercial fisheries.

"They're willing to keep the doors open for Inuvialuit beneficiaries to do small-scale fisheries," he said. "I know some people, at this time right now, they do harvest some of the fish species for selling … dry fish and things like that."