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Fishing, Native Organizations Applaud Bristol Bay Drilling Reprieve


Obama Administration Takes Important First Step Toward Protecting Nation’s ‘Fish Basket’

Local, Native and fishing organizations commended President Obama and Secretary Salazar’s announcement today to halt plans for offshore drilling in Alaska’s Bristol Bay and southeast Bering Sea. The reprieve from drilling in the nation’s most important fishing grounds came as part of a broader decision by Salazar on the current and proposed 5-Year Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas leasing programs and includes drilling in other areas of the nation. The decision represents an important victory for the Bristol Bay’s residents and Alaska’s fishermen who depend upon the continued health of the region’s fisheries and have been battling offshore oil and gas proposals for over 20 years.

"When Secretary Salazar visited Bristol Bay this past April, community leaders and residents voiced overwhelming opposition to drilling in waters critical to our subsistence way of life and our fisheries-based economy. We are thankful and grateful he took to heart the message that this is truly a place that's not appropriate for oil drilling," said Verner Wilson, Acting Executive Director of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of eight Bristol Bay Native Village corporations.

The administration reinstated the presidential withdrawal for Bristol Bay from offshore drilling until 2017. It had been in place under former administrations and was removed under President George W. Bush in 2007. The decision cancels a planned 2011 lease sale in the region (known as North Aleutian Basin Sale 214) that would have put 5.6 million acres of rich Alaskan waters—including vital habitat and fishing grounds for some of the world’s most sustainable and lucrative fisheries—at risk. The Bristol Bay region supports the largest run of wild salmon on the planet, the world’s largest single-species fishery--Alaska pollock--as well as red king crab and halibut.

Drilling in this productive area—jeopardizing renewable fisheries resources, and the businesses that depend on them--doesn’t make financial sense. The fishing industry is the number one private sector employer in Alaska. Bristol Bay and surrounding Bering Sea waters supply more than 40% of the US seafood harvest. Fisheries that could be affected by drilling generate more than $2 billion dollars annually.

“Today is a good day for Alaska’s coastal communities, our fishing industry and our economy,” said Kelly Harrell, Executive Director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “We are constantly witnessing the consequences of oil and gas development here in Alaska with spills and incidents happening continuously. The benefits of extracting a small, finite amount of oil and gas resources at the heart of our most valuable, renewable fisheries resources simply don’t outweigh the tremendous risks.”

Offshore oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay has a long, costly and controversial history. Lease sales that occurred there in the 1980’s despite broad opposition were bought back with taxpayer dollars after the devastating Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Congressional and executive moratoria on drilling in Bristol Bay were subsequently put into place, but both layers of protection were removed under President Bush.

Fishing industry leaders embroiled in the controversial lease sales in the past emphasized that while the decision is a positive move in the right direction, it is only a first step to achieving the permanent protection the region deserves.

“Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association has seen this area wedged in controversy before, with the buyback of a previous lease sale; at no small expense to taxpayers in terms of both time and money. This is a step in the right direction, but we cannot rest until these waters are protected in perpetuity,” added Karen Gillis, Executive Director of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association (BSFA). After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, BSFA successfully led the charge to buyback leases sold in Bristol Bay in 1986.

While the Obama Administration’s decision currently safeguards Bristol Bay from offshore leasing, it provides no guarantees under future administrations. A new president could remove the withdrawal- as President George W. Bush did in 2007-and include Bristol Bay in future leasing programs.

David Harsila, President of the Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Marketing Association echoed Gillis’ call for permanent protection. “Bristol Bay’s salmon resource is like no other on Earth and provides thousands of jobs to fishermen across Alaska and the west coast. Our organization and hundreds of member fishermen are thrilled with this decision, but want to see something permanent so we don’t have to fight this battle again,” stated Harsila.

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