Bristol Bay fishery needs protection from oil and gas leasing

Alaskans know that Bristol Bay is all about wild salmon. For thousands of years the people of Bristol Bay have thrived on this bounty and for more than 130 years, it has supported a major sustainable commercial fishery that supplies the world. Bristol Bay produces 50 percent of the world's sockeye salmon, making the region of true global importance.

In 2014, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported that 40.9 million sockeye returned to the Bay and the value paid to fishermen for the commercial catch was $197 million. Next year an even higher abundance is projected, making it one of the largest runs in 20 years -- plenty of rich, nutritious fish to fill Bristol Bay smokehouses and freezers, share with family and friends, and support a productive commercial fishery that supplies a global marketplace.

That's why good stewardship of the whole watershed matters -- from the pristine network of rivers, streams, and lakes where salmon life begins, to the deep ocean waters where they mature and roam until their great migration home again.

For the last 35 years, those dependent upon Bristol Bay have been frustrated by the uncertainty created by federal administrations' ever-changing positions regarding whether or not to lease Bristol Bay's rich fishing grounds and adjacent marine waters for offshore oil and gas development. Gov. Jay Hammond first fended off the U.S. Department of the Interior, but by 1988, after Govs. Bill Sheffield and Steve Cowper took up the fight to safeguard the fisheries, all legal recourse was exhausted and the North Aleutian Basin Lease Sale 92 was held, allowing oil and gas development in Bristol Bay to occur.

Exploration would have soon followed, but the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, spewing oil and fouling waters and coastlines for hundreds of miles, changing the course of events.

Congress intervened to postpone exploration on active leases to allow more time to address the risks to Bristol Bay. Fishermen, seafood companies, and conservation groups, with support from Govs. Wally Hickel and Tony Knowles, descended on Washington, D.C., to press the Interior Department to buy back the leases. In 1995, the leases were canceled, the oil companies went away, and fishermen breathed a collective sigh of relief.

But by 2007, the exact same area that had been bought back was once again being considered for development, only to be canceled again a few years later by the current administration.


Where are we now? It's hard to say, but one thing is clear: Bristol Bay fishermen and the markets they feed deserve a more secure solution. Now is the time to put to rest proposed developments that introduce risks to the sustainability and health of this world-class fishery. That is why the seafood development association is working with other organizations and companies to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from large-scale mining and promote permanent protection from offshore oil and gas leasing in the marine waters at the other end of this amazing ecosystem. Fishermen and Alaskans have worked hard for generations to ensure a successful seafood industry in Bristol Bay; fending off high-risk activities that threaten such efforts is necessary so that fishermen, processors, and seafood support industries can build and nourish viable business models.

The association's purpose is to advance the value and sustainability of the salmon fishery so that current and future generations will continue to benefit from the natural wealth of the region. Our commercial drift fishermen pay a self-imposed tax on their harvests to the association, reinvesting in their fishery. We work hard to advance innovations that improve quality and diversified markets for Bristol Bay salmon. All of Alaska and much of the nation benefits because the fishery creates jobs and economies throughout Alaska and across the country.

Please join our efforts to permanently protect the unique place that supports this prolific fishery and those who depend upon its abundance.

Sue Aspelund is executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which represents the 1,863 commercial salmon driftnet fishermen in Bristol Bay.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

Sue Aspelund

Sue Aspelund is executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.