As Arctic sea ice continues to melt, the Bering Sea—including the narrow Bering Strait—is experiencing more and more ship traffic. As ship traffic increases, so too do the risks, including oil spills, vessel strikes on marine mammals, air pollution, discharge of wastes into the water, and production of underwater noise.
A new report, commissioned by Ocean Conservancy and conducted by Nuka Research and Planning Group LLC, evaluates the risks from vessel traffic in the Bering Strait.
The Bering Sea is used by millions of seabirds, and an array of marine mammals including whales, seals, walruses and polar bears. Alaska Native peoples who live near the Bering Sea depend on its fish and wildlife as a key source of food and to support cultural practices that date back millennia. And the Bering Sea is home to rich commercial fisheries: in 2014, five of the top 10 most valuable commercial fisheries in the United States were based in or near the Bering Sea.
Celebrate with me—I have some incredibly exciting news! President Obama just declared important protections for the northern Bering Sea and the Bering Strait by establishing the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.
The Northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait is like no place on Earth. It is home to indigenous communities who have relied on the rich resources of the area for millennia. The traditional subsistence way of life is inextricably tied to this rich marine ecosystem. President Obama responded to requests from over 70 tribes in the region to create the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.
The Executive Order issued by President Obama establishes comprehensive management for the region that establishes a role for Alaska Native tribes and traditional knowledge into federal management. The order also provides important safeguards against threats from increased vessel traffic and oil and gas development, and maintains the current closure to bottom trawl fishing, while allowing existing commercial fishing and sustainable economic development to continue.
This New Year’s Day, I’m raising a toast in celebration of increased protection for 160,000 square miles of ocean surrounding Alaska’s windswept and ecologically rich Aleutian Islands that go into effect today.
Thousands of ships – some of which are carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic fuel – that ply this busy segment of the Great Circle Trade Route will now have to maintain a distance of 50 miles from the shoreline surrounding the Aleutian Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Defined as Areas To Be Avoided (ATBA), this newly enacted protection will buffer the Alaskan archipelago’s most sensitive coastal areas against pollution, noise and accidents.
The Bering Strait is the only marine connection between the Chukchi Sea and Arctic Ocean to the north and the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean to the south. Just 55 miles wide, the Strait separates Alaska to the east and Russia to the west.
The Bering Strait is a biological hotspot. Millions of seabirds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals use the Strait as a migratory corridor, and the Bering and Chukchi Seas are one of the most productive ocean ecosystems in the world.
Today, Alaska Senator Mark Begich introduced important new legislation that would establish a permanent program to conduct research, monitoring, and observing activities in the Arctic. If passed, Senator Begich’s bill could lead to significant advances in Arctic science that can then be used to support decisions about the management of a region that is crucial not only to the people who live there, but to the world.
Imagine if the United States could lay claim over vast stretches of pristine open ocean and coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean. What if we could expand our nation’s control over the marine environments in the Arctic, the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea? And how might it benefit our country if we could extend our existing maritime borders along the East Coast, West Coast and the Gulf of Mexico?
It would be like a giant ocean Louisiana Purchase. Except this time, the United States wouldn’t have to pay a dime.
Expansion of U.S. borders may seem like the stuff of history books. But what I’m talking about here isn’t history. And it isn’t fantasy. It’s a very real choice facing the U.S. Senate right at this very moment.