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Oil Drilling Banned from Critical Salmon Bay
Obama blocks rigs from Alaska’s Bristol Bay, citing the risk to its irreplaceable salmon fishery

12/18/2014 By Craig Weatherby
Chalk one up for wild salmon.

Together, river dams and diseases spread by salmon farms virtually extinguished wild Atlantic salmon.

Although wild Pacific salmon remain abundant for now, they are at risk.

Russia's wild salmon are being poached at alarming rates, western Canada's are endangered by salmon farms ... and a proposed Alaskan gold mine could devastate the world's biggest sockeye salmon fishery.

So it comes as very good news that President Obama just decided to place Alaska's Bristol Bay – home to that stupendous salmon fishery – off limits to oil and gas leasing.

Executive action guards an irreplaceable habitat and resource
Obama's action will guard “America's fish basket”, source of some 40 percent of the nation's wild seafood.

Hundreds of pristine rivers stream into Bristol Bay to create rich fishing grounds that host more than half the world's wild sockeye salmon ... plus abundant halibut, herring, cod, pollock, red king crab, and sablefish (black cod).

This rich, expansive ecosystem also supports birds, bears, sea otters, seals, walruses, Beluga and Killer whales, and the endangered North Pacific Right Whale.

For Alaskans, Bristol Bay supports a $2 billion annual fishing industry, as well as the region's Native communities and a $100 million recreational fishing and tourism economy.

Obama announced the drilling ban in a video from the Oval Office, calling Bristol Bay and its wild, 250-mile-long coastline “one of America's greatest natural resources.”

Click here to view the President's video message about his decision.

Environmentalists lauded the decision. “The president has shown wisdom and vision in protecting this amazing region of the world from drilling,” said Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

This action builds on decades of local Bay-conservation campaigns, and honors the legacy of Alaskans like Harold “Harvey” Samuelsen ... a salmon fisherman legendary for his lifelong dedication to Bristol Bay and its vulnerable communities.

Alaskans appear divided over mining and drilling
Polls consistently show that some 60 percent of Alaskans oppose Pebble Mine.

Last November, 66 percent of voters supported the “Bristol Bay Forever” ballot measure, which requires State legislative approval for development of the mine … which is opposed by the U.S. EPA (see “Feds Vow to Block Salmon-Risking Mine”).

However, in 2008, Alaskan voters rejected Ballot Measure 4, which would have boosted protections for the huge sockeye salmon run in Bristol Bay. 

And Alaskans generally support oil, gas, and mineral operations, which provide some jobs – though fewer than fishing and tourism jobs related to Bristol Bay – and direct payments to state residents.

(For more on the critical fight to protect Bristol Bay and its salmon and other wildlife, see the Mining & Seafood Sustainability section of our news archive.)

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska does not oppose the decision, for now:
“Given the lack of interest by industry and the public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration in this area, I am not objecting to this decision at this time. I think we all recognize that these are some of our state's richest fishing waters.”

But she objected to what she sees as skewed priorities: “It is incredibly frustrating that this administration looks at Alaska … with oil production at a fraction of the level it could be at … and decides that conservation is our most pressing need.”

Alaskans just elected Senator Dan Sullivan, who promoted the Pebble Mine, and will sit on the Senate committee with jurisdiction over proposed legislation to advance the Pebble Mine by changing the Clean Water Act.

Ban extends an earlier action
In 2010, President Obama temporarily withdrew the Bristol Bay area from oil and gas development, exercising his authority to withdraw offshore areas from potential oil and gas leasing.

President Eisenhower was the first to exercise the authority in 1960, withdrawing an area now included in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Since then, Presidents on both sides of the aisle have acted to withdraw areas of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf from oil and gas leasing.

In 2006, President George W. Bush created a huge, 140,000 square mile Marine Sanctuary near the Northern Hawaiian Islands – the largest ever established – followed by his creation in 2009 of three large Marine National Monuments in the Pacific Ocean.


Sources
  • PBS Newshour. Bush to Establish World's Largest Marine Sanctuary. January 6, 2009. Accessed at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/environment-jan-june09-marine_01-06/
  • U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Sen. Murkowski Responds to Withdrawal of North Aleutian Basin from Five-Year Leasing Plan. Dec 16, 2014. Accessed at http://www.energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/republican-news?ID=0dfce38e-1f65-41a7-a962-05bc7c8d130e
  • U.S. White House. President Obama Protects Alaska's Bristol Bay from Future Oil and Gas Drilling. December 16, 2014. Accessed at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/12/16/president-obama-protects-alaska-s-bristol-bay-future-oil-and-gas-drillin