Aquaculture for all

Bristol Bay stripped of longstanding protections for marine mammals

US - On January 7, 2007, President Bush lifted the prohibition on selling oil leases in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) has proposed beginning lease sales in 2011, but opposition to the drilling plan is mounting.

Bristol Bay hosts one of the world’s highest densities of breeding seabirds. It is also a staging ground and wintering area for tens of millions of seabirds, endangered marine mammals, and other wildlife. Forty percent of the total US fisheries catch, including the world’s largest wild run of sockeye salmon, comes from Bristol Bay.

The bay’s richness was recognized as too important to risk in 1989, after the Exxon Valdez disaster. First, Congress included Bristol Bay in a moratorium on funding oil exploration. President George H. W. Bush then affirmed the congressional protection by withdrawing the area from consideration for leasing in 1990. Because of these prohibitions, the Department of Interior negotiated a repurchase for the leases that had already been sold.

However, in 2003, Congress removed a huge swath of the bay from the moratorium. In 2007, President Bush re-opened the bay for offshore oil and gas drilling; now oil leases may be sold for the area, provided that the guidelines of the National Environmental Policy Act are followed and environmental assessments are conducted. A report just released by MMS, after a meeting of agency experts to plan research, concluded that significant analysis of environmental impacts was needed because “…current information is insufficient to address oil and gas leasing issues.”

Oil spills are more than a remote possibility; federal studies predict one or more major oil spills if this area is developed. Harsh weather and sea ice would make cleaning up spills doubly difficult, even if they could be contained quickly. The proposed pipeline for the project runs directly through key habitat for declining Steller’s Eider, federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council, local fishermen and communities, and the World Wildlife Fund are actively trying to block these lease sales. Legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate to permanently prevent drilling in the area, but protection is not yet secure.

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