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Obama removes Bristol Bay from federal drilling

December 19th, 2014 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

The rich fishing waters of Bristol Bay received a presidential pardon from potential oil and gas drilling Tuesday when the White House issued an executive order removing the region from future federal lease programs.

In a video announcement of the decision, President Barack Obama is shown signing the order, and noted that the natural resources are too precious to be put out to the highest bidder.

The action is being lauded by groups such as the Fish Basket Coalition as a victory for protection of the region's valuable fishing grounds. The area has been on and off the federal leasing schedule for decades, with a new round of leasing considerations scheduled for 2017. This week's action should remove the region for good, said the coalition, and is supported by some 50 tribes and organizations across western Alaska as well as 20 seafood companies and trade associations.

"We have the nation's most important fisheries in Bristol Bay and the eastern Bering Sea worth billions of dollars," said Robin Samuelsen, chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation in a statement. "Wild salmon for all of western Alaska runs through Bristol Bay every spring. 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."

Others noted that the move will allow for more stability in the Bristol Bay fisheries, something welcome for a region that has been lobbying for years now to keep the proposed Pebble Mine project from moving forward for fear it would impact the area's salmon run. This action does not impact the proposed Pebble Mine project, however.

"By removing Bristol Bay from the federal offshore oil and gas leasing program in perpetuity, we have more certainty that our waters will be safe for the sustainable fisheries that make our jobs possible and provide a renewable economy," said David Harsila, president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association. "This has been a long-time coming and Bristol Bay fishermen are breathing a collective sigh of relief."

The coalition noted that the national leases in the Bristol Bay and southeast Bering Sea have been on and off the table since the '70s, with lease proposals generating controversy each time they were brought forward on the federal five-year leasing schedule.

The Interior Department held a lease sale in 1988, but Congress intervened the following year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, placing a moratorium on explorative drilling in the Bristol Bay region. In 1995 the leases were bought back by the Interior Department with the support of the state. But only a few years later, the Bush administration announced a new lease sale in the same location. President Obama revised that plan, removing those leases from consideration. This week's action should prevent further consideration of lease sales in the area, the coalition said.

"Since the 1970s the offshore waters of Bristol Bay have been at risk from potential oil and gas development despite its world-class fisheries, magnificent salmon migrations and ecological importance," said Dorothy Childers, associate director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. "Finally taking Bristol Bay off the table offers the kind of security that the people deserve, once and for all."

The Bristol Bay region produces some 40 percent of U.S. domestic seafood production valued at more than $2 billion annually and supports the world's largest wild salmon run.


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