Bush administration lifts moratorium on leasing in area of Bristol Bay, home to world's largest sockeye salmon runs

by Craig Weatherby

Last month, we reported on the Bush Administration's intent to open an area of Bristol Bay, Alaskahome to the world's biggest sockeye salmon runsto oil and gas drilling (See “Bush White House May Lift Ban on Bristol Bay Drilling”).

Now the intent is official, with the announcement last week that leasing would begin.

This is bad news because, as we've reported, Alaska's sockeye salmon already face threats from huge gold and mineral mines proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay (see “Opposition to Salmon-Risking Mine Grows” and “Proposed Mine Threatens Bristol Bay”).

The only possible silver lining, should the leasing go through, is that the potential leases are more likely to be for gas than oil, reducing the risk of spills. But we cannot be sure of that, so early opposition is needed.

To voice your objections to your Congressional representatives, go to http://www.senate.gov and http://www.house.gov for their names, phone numbers, and addresses.

Rather than tell the story in our own, less-well-informed words, we'll leave it to the widely respected Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

Below is their press release on the subject (blue text), sent out from Anchorage, Alaska, January 9, 2007 (Underlining added for emphasis). You'll find links to the AMCC's comments on the plan at the end of the release.

President Bush Ends Protection for Alaska's Bristol Bay

Alaska Marine Conservation Council will call on Congress to restore protection from offshore oil and gas drilling

Today, the Bush Administration removed long-standing bipartisan protection for Alaska's Bristol Bay, ending a prohibition on offshore oil and gas development in what is arguably one of the most important and sensitive areas of the nation's entire Outer Continental Shelf.

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council (AMCC)an Alaska–based organization working to conserve fisheries, protect marine life and support sustainable coastal economiesis deeply disappointed in the President's action.

"Opening Bristol Bay to offshore oil and gas development could have devastating impacts to the marine environment and coastal economies," said Eric Siy, executive director of the AMCC.

The area of proposed offshore leasing falls within the nation's “fish basket.” An estimated forty percent of total domestic fish catch comes from the southeastern Bering Sea. The region also supports world-renowned seabird and marine mammal populations as well as a number of threatened and endangered species, including the highly endangered North Pacific right whale.

Diverse groups with a stake in the future of Bristol Bay adamantly oppose offshore drilling in the region. These include fishing groups, native associations, tribal governments and conservation groups. In December, six organizations representing 128 Alaskan communities sent a letter urging continued protection for Bristol Bay. These organizations included the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Bristol Bay Native Association, Bering Sea Fishermen's Association, Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association, Bristol Bay Driftnetters Association, and Bristol Bay Reserve.

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council maintains that the value of safeguarding Bristol Bay's renewable fish resources far outweighs the comparatively low potential for oil and gas development and the associated risks of offshore activities in rough waters and sea ice:

Bristol Bay and southeastern Bering Sea waters support globally important commercial fisheries valued at nearly $2 billion dollars annually. The area targeted for offshore oil and gas development overlaps with vital habitat and fishing grounds for salmon, red king crab, herring, Pacific halibut and Bering Sea pollock and cod.

Bristol Bay is home to the world's largest wild run of sockeye salmon. The ex-vessel value of the commercial sockeye salmon fishery was $106 million dollars in 2006. The area proposed for development overlaps with out–migration routes for smolts and the migration routes for adults returning to rivers throughout western Alaska and the Arctic. Even a small oil spill or any environmental mishap in the region could damage branding and marketing efforts currently underway for Bristol Bay wild salmon.

The economic benefits of renewable fisheries resources far outweigh the estimated potential economic value of nonrenewable offshore oil and gas resources. According to the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) the total value of recoverable oil and gas from offshore development has been estimated at $7.7 billion dollars over the entire 25–40 year lifespan of the project. Every year of offshore drilling would put an estimated $2 billion dollar annual fisheries economy at risk.

Subsistence is the irreplaceable mainstay of Alaska Native tradition and culture. Salmon is the lifeblood of village economies and ways of life. In addition to salmon, southwestern Alaskan communities rely on halibut, herring, sea mammals and other ocean and coastal resources. Impacts from offshore drilling would threaten subsistence traditions.

"Bristol Bay's renewable fisheries resources have long supported coastal economies and subsistence ways of life in Alaska and if managed properlycan do so well into the future," said Siy. "We must not sacrifice this promising future," said Siy who explained that the federal government's own studies indicate a relatively small amount of oil and gas potential and fail to weigh this against the potential for damage to fish and their habitat.

"The President's action today ends an admirable history of bipartisan protection for Bristol Bay," said Siy. "We will be calling on the new Congress to restore protection for Bristol Bay and secure a lasting moratorium on offshore drilling," said Siy.

In 1989, Bristol Bay was added to the nearly nationwide Congressional moratorium on offshore oil and gas leasing. In 1998, President Bill Clinton further strengthened protection by adding Bristol Bay to President George H.W. Bush's executive leasing withdrawals and extended the duration of all such executive protections until June 30, 2012. Congress removed Bristol Bay from the Congressional moratorium in November 2003, leaving only the Presidential withdrawal in place.

The North Aleutian Basin, an offshore planning area that includes Bristol Bay and a portion of the southeastern Bering Sea is included in Minerals Management Service Proposed 5-Year OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program, 2007-2012. AMCC submitted comments on the plan which can be downloaded below.

Click here to see a copy of AMCC's comments to MMS on the Draft EIS for 5–Year program(PDF file).

Click here to see a copy of AMCC's comments to MMS on the Proposed Program.