Compass: Protect Bristol Bay and Bering Sea fisheries for keeps

The question of offshore oil and gas development has hung over Bristol Bay and the southeast Bering Sea for 35 years. Lease sales have been scheduled, fought, sold and repurchased only to be scheduled again once temporary moratoriums expired or were lifted.

Enough already. Sustainable fisheries and a healthy ecosystem have been economic engines for Southwest Alaska for more than 125 years and the foundation of traditional ways of life there for close to 10,000 years. These world-renowned fisheries deserve to be safeguarded in perpetuity, and the people who depend on them for their livelihoods deserve some certainty.

Bristol Bay boasts the world's largest run of wild sockeye salmon, returning from years in the open ocean to the many tributaries and lakes of the watershed for spawning. The region has averaged returns of over 37 million salmon annually over the past 20 years. The proposed oil and gas leasing area lies in the path of both the in-migration and out-migration of these salmon stocks. This area also features lucrative groundfish fisheries, critical halibut nursery grounds and the heart of the prized red king crab fishery.

The North Aleutian Basin, as the area is called, was first leased to the petroleum industry in 1986 after a lawsuit brought by the state of Alaska failed to stop the sale. Drilling was then prohibited when Congress protected the area after the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in 1989. Then in 1995 the leases were bought back from industry with taxpayer dollars.

We thought the debate was settled. However, a quiet reversal occurred when Congress and the George W. Bush administration re-opened this area and scheduled a lease sale for 2011. Just as we did in the 1980s and 1990s, Bristol Bay organizations, commercial fishermen and conservation groups collaborated to set these waters aside once again. Nearly 70 seafood industry, tribal and regional organizations - representing fishing companies, vessel owners, fishermen, processors and people from the region who harvest a way of life from these waters - declared they didn't want to take the risk that comes with oil and gas development because our waters are best dedicated to healthy salmon and the diversity of sustainable fisheries.

Responding to these concerns in 2010, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that Bristol Bay and the southeast Bering Sea are a "national treasure" and would again be removed from the lease sale schedule through 2017. In deferring all consideration of a lease sale for the immediate future, the Department of the Interior recognized the area's stature as an area with special economic and natural resource significance.

We appreciate the reprieve but the uncertainty is frustrating. The tumultuous on-again, off-again history of leasing in the region strongly argues for a permanent solution that takes the politics out of the recurring question. While possible drilling is several years away, action can be taken now to preserve this area for its fisheries and value to coastal communities. We already have a successful industry in the Bristol Bay and southeast Bering Sea - a fishery worth $2 billion every single year, far more than the projected $7.7 billion that offshore oil and gas might yield over the entire life of the field.

Recent offshore catastrophes are frightful examples of how oil and gas can devastate marine waters. We need to provide security for our fisheries, livelihoods and traditions not just for five more years, or 10 or 20 but once and for all.

Karen Gillis is executive director for Bering Sea Fishermen's Association (BSFA) and has worked on this issue since the beginning of her career with BSFA in 1992.