President Barack Obama today designated the waters of Bristol Bay as off limits to oil and gas leasing for exploration, development or production. This action safeguards one of the nation’s most productive fisheries and preserves an ecologically rich area of the Bering Sea that is vital to the commercial fishing and tourism economy and to Alaska Native communities.
The eastern-most arm of the Bering Sea, Bristol Bay is 250 miles long and 180 miles wide at its mouth. Many of Alaska’s major rivers flow into the bay, and all five species of Pacific salmon: pink, chum, sockeye, coho and king, return to Bristol Bay to spawn in these rivers.
Bristol Bay is at the heart one of the world’s most valuable fisheries, helping to provide 40 percent of America’s wild-caught seafood and support a $2 billion annual fishing industry.
The beautiful and remote area is also an economic engine for tourism in Alaska, driving $100 million in recreational fishing and tourism activity every year.
Bristol Bay hosts the largest runs of wild sockeye salmon in the world, and provides important habitat for many species, including the threatened Stellar’s eider, sea otters, seals, walruses, Beluga and Killer whales, and the endangered North Pacific Right Whale.
Today’s decision to withdraw the area from all future oil and gas leasing extends indefinitely a temporary withdrawal that President Obama issued in 2010 and was set to expire in 2017.
This action builds on decades of local efforts to protect Bristol Bay from oil and gas development by Alaska Native tribes and organizations, as well as local seafood and tourism businesses that create jobs and strengthen Alaska and the nation’s economy.
The North Aleutian Basin Planning Area that includes Bristol Bay consists of 32.5 million acres, a portion of which was leased in the mid-1980s but never developed due to litigation.
The Bush Administration set in motion a new lease sale for 2011 that would have opened approximately 5.6 million acres – about one-fifth of the planning area – for drilling.
In 2010, President Obama temporarily withdrew the Bristol Bay area from oil and gas development, exercising his authority under section 12 of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which gives the President authority to withdraw offshore areas from potential oil and gas leasing.
Environmentalists are delighted with this protection.
Elizabeth Thompson, president of Environmental Defense Action Fund, said, “Bristol Bay is a special place – a sensitive and precious natural resource that must be preserved for its abundant fishery, its incomparable beauty, and its vast and productive habitat. In protecting the Bay ecosystem from drilling, the President has delivered once again on his promise to protect the special and irreplaceable natural treasures of the American landscape.”
Even Alaska’s Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski did not object, saying, “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.”
But Murkowski criticized the Obama Administration for putting conservation ahead of oil production in Alaska.
“It is incredibly frustrating that this administration looks at Alaska – with oil production at a fraction of the level it could be at, and with low oil prices about to force steep across-the-board budget cuts – and decides that conservation is our most pressing need,” Murkowski said.