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.