Skip to main Content

In support of a permanent withdrawal of Bristol Bay from offshore drilling

  • Author: Norm Van Vactor
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published January 22, 2015

Last month, President Barack Obama removed the North Aleutian Basin from the federal offshore oil and gas leasing program. Bristol Bay and the adjacent southeast Bering Sea waters are off the table for future leasing. His decision was supported by 20 seafood companies and trade associations who operate in the region as well as 50 tribes and Native organizations from Western Alaska and the Interior. The Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation (BBEDC) was part of this collective voice for resolving many decades of uncertainty about whether our fishing grounds would become an oil and gas field.

We believe the North Aleutian Basin is a place where the risks associated with offshore drilling are just not worth taking. The region represents 40 percent of the entire American seafood production. It is the heart of the Bering Sea fishery with a wholesale value of over $2 billion each year. Putting such high-value fisheries at risk for a relatively small gain in energy production was not a business plan that made sense.

BBEDC is invested in all the major fisheries in Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea including salmon, pollock, cod, flatfish, halibut, herring, red king crab and opilio crab. As a Community Development Quota group, we use income from these fisheries to benefit our rural communities. Last year alone, we invested over $20 million into 17 communities in the Bristol Bay region, creating jobs, funding scholarships and building infrastructure in Western Alaska.

For the past nearly four decades, the controversy has been that the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area, designated by the federal government for offshore drilling, overlaps with the epicenter for our fisheries as well as important rearing habitats for the fish populations we rely on. Imagine oil and gas wells drilled into the most important halibut nursery that produces young fish for all of Alaska. Or an oil spill when the world's largest run of sockeye salmon are moving out of Bristol Bay to grow up in the deep ocean or moving in during their magnificent migration back to the spawning grounds.

In the 1980s, leases were sold and then later bought back in the 1990s. In 2007, the exact same area that had been bought back was scheduled for another sale. The current administration answered our plea to stop the sale, which they did until 2017. But by then it was obvious that a permanent solution was needed to end this debate. We needed certainty that our world-class fishing grounds would not be sold to the highest bidder.

In Alaska we have a science-based fishery management system. The seafood industry supports a practice of setting conservative catch limits, which has enabled the harvest of millions of pounds from the Bering Sea, year after year, over many decades. The duty of maintaining our fisheries and safeguarding the ecosystem that makes them possible is an important and honorable challenge. And the benefits are widely shared among the fishermen, processors, consumers, support services, coastal communities and the nation as a whole.

Our No. 1 goal is to ensure our natural heritage is here for the coming generations. We want to thank the president for withdrawing Bristol Bay from the offshore drilling program. It resolves a concern that has gripped Bristol Bay leaders for decades. Unfortunately, since the president's announcement, some outside organizations surprised us with a super-sized marine sanctuary proposal in the Bering Sea that would affect a slew of issues, including fisheries, shipping and offshore drilling. No one involved with it bothered to talk to people who make their livelihood in the region. We are shaking our heads in amazement knowing that the proposal will go nowhere. But the point is, lobbing unsupported schemes from a distance is like dropping a random bomb and waiting to see what happens. Nothing good comes from this way of doing business. On the other hand, we appreciate opportunities to work with conservation and other groups who value collaboration in the service of sustaining our fisheries and ways of life.

The president's announcement in December was a result of such collaboration and goodwill between diverse parties. His action supports our fisheries and makes a lasting investment in maintaining the renewable economic engine that they provide.

Norm Van Vactor is the CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and lives in Dillingham.

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, email commentary(at)