Alaska News

Aleutian marine sanctuary nomination attracts local opposition

A Dec. 22 nomination to establish an Aleutian Islands National Marine Sanctuary has received opposition from some local communities in the region.

The nomination, put forward by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national group, comes on the heels of the Obama administration's recent extension of an oil and gas development exclusion for Bristol Bay. The PEER sanctuary nomination is an effort to permanently protect an area that extends roughly 554,000 square miles, a span of ocean larger than the rest of Alaska combined.

Both the Aleutians East Borough and the Agdaagux tribe of King Cove have formally opposed the measure, noting that any effort to establish a sanctuary begins at the local level, and support in the region is almost nonexistent.

"In my mind, it's the permanent nature of a sanctuary, the sheer size of it, and the exclusion of local communities," said Ernie Weiss, fisheries director for the Aleutians East Borough, in explaining the borough's reasons for opposition.

Some are concerned that the heightened protection status could cause economic damage to the subsistence and commercial fisheries, the main source of income for most residents.

Opposition claims adequate protection already exists, and that further protective status would be unnecessary. The Aleutian Islands are currently subject to a fishery ecosystem plan developed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The King Cove statement notes that the tribe recently began a monitoring program to collect data on marine mammal and bird life. State and federal protections against overfishing, oil and gas development and increased shipping traffic are already in place across the region.

"The local people who have been good stewards of this region for generations object to the audacity of those who propose to designate this vast area, our home, as a 'sanctuary,'" the borough resolution stated.

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The nomination calls for the expansion of ground trawling closures, and would include a ban on open sea trawling out to 20 miles. It would also make permanent any existing protections in the region, as well as strengthen regulations on shipping transit and open further marine research that can help sustain the Aleutian ecosystem.

"The designation is intended to protect small boat coastal fisheries, and to protect Alaska Native marine subsistence," said PEER board member Richard Steiner.

Steiner said he hopes the nomination will at least open a public conversation about conserving the marine ecosystems in Alaska. He worries that efforts to discuss marine conservation have been stymied, and that declines in Alaskan marine ecosystems will increase in coming years.

"It is a real tragedy, and we simply must be able to hold a civil public discourse on marine ecosystem protection in Alaska, or our marine systems will certainly continue to decline," said Steiner.

Opposition groups note that 95 percent of the Aleutian Islands Management Area -- a 277,000-nautical-square-mile region -- is already closed to bottom fishing. The nomination does not define small boat designations and Weiss worries that the nomination might exclude a significant portion of the region's vessels.

The nomination will be considered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Under current legislation, marine sanctuaries can be designated by the Secretary of Commerce, by an act of Congress, or by the president, who can declare national marine monuments under the Antiquities Act.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has introduced separate legislation that would block the president from unilaterally declaring national monument protection status. Her Improved National Monument Designation Process Act would require congressional approval for any monument designations, and also require approval from state legislatures within 100 miles of the proposed monument.

"The continued foreclosure of our lands and waters threatens economic activities from fishing to exploration for oil and natural gas," said Murkowski. Her bill has support from numerous groups, including the Resource Development Council for Alaska and United Fishermen of Alaska.

A draft of the sanctuary nomination was circulated to numerous stakeholder groups in the region in early December, although the Aleutians East Borough says it had no knowledge of the nomination prior to the formal submission to NOAA.

According to Steiner, PEERS received little input from area tribes and stakeholders, but did incorporate any suggestions that were given into the final nomination submission.

The Aleutians are home to numerous endangered species, including the Steller sea lion and North Pacific right whale. Bristol Bay, which would be included in the designation, hosts thousands of jobs, and in 2014 brought in nearly $193 million from sockeye salmon alone. Two of the top three fishing ports in the nation -- Akutan and Dutch Harbor -- reside within the proposed sanctuary boundary.

For now, the Aleutian Islands Marine Sanctuary remains far from becoming a reality. Following the nomination, NOAA conducts an initial review. If the proposal meets designated standards, it will undergo further consideration. During this process, NOAA examines the ecological, historical, archeological and cultural importance of the proposed region. It will also engage communities, native groups, and other entities before it chooses to formally accept or reject the nomination. According to the NOAA nomination guidelines, acceptance requires "broad-based community support,"

If accepted, the Aleutians proposal will go into an inventory for future consideration. To be designated as a national marine sanctuary requires a separate process, and could involve years of public discourse.

Opponents are confident that the proposal won't find local footing.

"The Aleut people take pride in being ecologically and environmentally responsible with our ocean's resources," the King Cove resolution stated.

Supporters remain hopeful that the nomination will at least open a conversation about how to better manage the marine ecosystems in the waters surrounding Alaska.

"I am well aware that the proposal will attract opposition, and have already been informed by some business interests that they oppose making permanent ... existing species and habitat protections in the region. I expected such, and that is fine. A robust discussion is a good thing," Steiner said.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

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