by Dorothy Childers, Associate Director of AMCC
Today the Obama Administration announced a landmark decision to finally remove the North Aleutian Basin from the federal Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. We celebrate today’s action to protect Bristol Bay and the southeast Bering Sea, the region’s valuable fishing grounds, and world’s largest wild salmon run from offshore development in perpetuity. The decision represents a long and hard fought victory for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, who has worked collaboratively to prevent offshore drilling in Bristol Bay for over 12 years.
The announcement provides a lasting solution that resolves decades of uncertainty about whether or not offshore development would occur amidst Bristol Bay and the Bering’s Sea’s rich fishing grounds and adjacent federal waters.
“We have the nation’s most important fisheries in Bristol Bay and the eastern Bering Sea worth billions of dollars. Wild salmon for all of western Alaska runs through Bristol Bay every spring,” said Robin Samuelsen, Chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. “Herring, king crab, halibut nursery grounds and the large groundfish fisheries – all these bring economic benefits to our people and sustain a way of life that has been ongoing here for thousands of years. My father worked his whole life to protect our fisheries and create opportunity for the people. It’s a great honor to my family that the federal government recognizes his legacy by putting Bristol Bay off limits to offshore drilling.”
Since the 1970s, proposals to lease in Bristol Bay and the North Aleutian Basin have been controversial, generating great opposition from the seafood industry, tribes throughout western Alaska and coastal Alaskans.
In 1988 the Interior Department held Lease Sale 92 after years of litigation brought by the State of Alaska and others. Less than one year later, the Exxon Valdez tanker hit the rocks in Prince William Sound sending a shock wave around the state. Suddenly the real cost of an oil spill was clear, which stimulated Congress to intervene with a moratorium on exploration drilling on the leases that had been sold in Bristol Bay.
In 1995 the Interior Department bought back the controversial leases with support from Alaska’s Governor Knowles and the congressional delegation. A few years later, the Bush administration revived the possibility of offshore drilling in Bristol Bay by scheduling a new lease sale in the exact same area that had been bought back. However, President Obama revised the Bush administration’s Five-Year Plan and removed consideration of Bristol Bay until 2017.
Today’s announcement resolves longstanding concerns and should end the on again-off again nature of leasing in Bristol Bay. President Obama has removed the area from future oil and gas development under Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.
An alliance of Alaska Native tribes, commercial fishermen, seafood companies and trade associations, and conservation groups are in support of permanently protecting productive fisheries and subsistence opportunities in the region. Fifty tribes and organizations across western Alaska passed resolutions and 20 seafood companies and trade associations called for permanent protection.
Bristol Bay and the southeast Bering Sea represent over 40% of U.S. domestic seafood production valued at more than $2 billion annually – including salmon, red king crab, herring, and groundfish such as pollock and cod. It is a critical juvenile halibut nursery for the whole North Pacific population and therefore important to fishing families statewide. Bristol Bay is a significant contribution to Alaska’s seafood industry which employs more Alaskans than any other private sector enterprise in the state and a tax base that supports our coastal economy and communities.
All five Pacific salmon species migrate through Bristol Bay every year on their way to spawning grounds throughout western Alaska. Bristol Bay hosts 50% of the global population of wild sockeye salmon, supporting a sustainable commercial fishery and a traditional harvest that has been ongoing for thousands of years. In 2014, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported that 40.9 million sockeye returned to Bristol Bay. Commercial fishermen were paid $197 million for their catch destined for a global marketplace.
Congratulations to all who raised their voice in support of permanent protection from offshore drilling!
Recent Op-Eds on Protecting Bristol Bay:
“Safeguard Bristol Bay watershed” by Marin Lee in the Peninsula Clarion
“Bristol Bay, Bering Sea need protection from oil drilling” by Stosh Anderson and Robert Heyano in the Alaska Journal of Commerce
“Bristol Bay fishery needs protection from oil and gas leasing” by Sue Aspelund in the Alaska Dispatch News
Story about the withdrawal in the Arctic Sounder by Carey Restino: “Obama removes Bristol Bay from federal drilling“