President Biden must protect and restore Alaska’s troubled oceans

President Joe Biden’s commitment to protecting 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 (“30x30”) is one of the most significant environmental commitments of his early presidency. A central focus of this long-overdue effort must be Alaska’s vast but troubled offshore waters.

Although we have a patchwork of temporary fishery management restrictions in Alaska waters, astonishingly, there are no permanent, comprehensive federal offshore marine protected areas here, such as National Marine Sanctuaries or Marine National Monuments (the inside waters of Glacier Bay National Park are a separate, unique case). The Marine Conservation Institute confirms that although half of all waters in the Pacific Islands region are “strongly protected,” none of Alaska’s waters currently receive such protection. None.

Significant Alaska lands were protected in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), but Alaska waters have yet to receive comparable protection. As the Obama administration ignored our proposals to address this, President Biden must now step up and fix this problem once and for all. Here’s why.

Alaska’s seas and coasts are unique and globally significant for their diversity, expanse, abundance of fish and wildlife, as well as historical, cultural and economic importance.

Half of the nation’s entire shoreline and three-fourths of our total continental shelf is in Alaska. The Alaska 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covers 1.45 million square miles (more than twice the land area of the state), and an area larger than the EEZ of all of the contiguous lower 48 states combined. This vast Alaska offshore area hosts the most abundant populations of fish, shellfish, seabirds and marine mammals in the nation, and some of the most abundant in the world. And Alaska waters support thousands of jobs and a multibillion-dollar economy, including seafood landings larger than those of all other states combined, a growing marine recreation and tourism industry, and subsistence of coastal residents.

But all is not well in Alaska’s oceans. Most of Alaska’s threatened & endangered species are marine animals, and many seabird and marine mammal populations throughout Alaska are in decline — the result, scientists suspect, of excessive harvests of certain fish populations in combination with long-term changes in the ocean environment.

Climate change is reducing sea-ice cover and causing unprecedented marine ecosystem impacts, including ocean acidification, warming waters, changes in distribution and abundance of marine species, subsistence impacts, salmon run failures, and coastal erosion. Unusual mortality events in marine organisms are becoming more frequent and extensive; persistent organic pollutants are found in Alaska’s marine mammals; marine debris continues to accumulate and kill indiscriminately; bottom trawling is damaging vast areas of seabed habitat; invasive species are a growing concern; and the ecological injury from just one grounded oil tanker (Exxon Valdez) persists 30 years later.

Put simply, Alaska’s oceans are dying, and we are doing nothing of substance in response.

The Biden administration presents a long-overdue opportunity for the federal government to reset its policies for sustaining Alaska’s productive but troubled ocean ecosystems. A new paradigm of Alaska ocean management is urgently needed.

Here is some of what the administration needs to do:

1. Commission the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a one-year, independent ecological assessment of Alaska’s federal waters in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, and Arctic Ocean. The assessment should identify all ecologically significant areas with high biodiversity and productivity; uniqueness or species rarity; special importance for life stages of species; importance for threatened, endangered, or declining species or habitats; and areas with vulnerability, sensitivity, or slow recovery from disturbance. The assessment should identify all present and future threats to Alaska marine ecosystems, and identify specific management tools to remedy such threats.

2. From this assessment, the administration should formulate, in consultation with stakeholders, an Alaska National Interest Oceans Conservation Initiative, establishing permanent federal marine reserves, Marine National Monuments and/or National Marine Sanctuaries in federal waters, (e.g. Aleutian Islands/Unimak Pass/Pribilof Islands; Bering Strait; Chukchi Sea/Beaufort Sea). These marine protected areas should prioritize protections for Alaska Native subsistence, small-boat coastal fisheries (salmon, herring, crab, halibut, etc.), and marine recreation and tourism economies. The goal should be to “Protect the best, restore the rest.”

3. Make permanent the prohibition on offshore oil and gas leasing on the entire Alaska Outer Continental Shelf (3 - 200 miles offshore).

4. While the U.S. has now rejoined the U.N. Paris Climate Accord, we also must advocate an urgent two-fold increase in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to emissions reductions in all nations, as this will be critical to reversing long-term climate change impacts in Alaska waters.

5. Develop a robust program in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to reduce marine debris (including microplastics), invasive species, and persistent organic pollutants in Alaska waters; appoint an Alaska Native tribal liaison in NOAA.

6. Initiate an Alaska Blue Economy Initiative to subsidize and enhance sustainable jobs and economy in Alaska’s federal waters — Alaska Native subsistence, marine recreation and tourism, small boat coastal fisheries, mariculture, low-carbon ocean energy development (wave, wind, nonbarrage tidal, geothermal, etc.).

7. Finance an Alaska Climate Change Coastal Resilience Initiative to support Alaska coastal villages and subsistence users with climate adaptation needs, including relocation, food security and resilient infrastructure.

8. Reduce the total allowable catch of certain fish stocks, such as Bering Sea pollock, to increase prey availability for declining seabird and marine mammal populations.

9. Establish rigorous transit ship safety protocols through Aleutian Islands and Bering Strait, with rescue tugs, routing agreements, speed limits in critical marine mammal habitats, areas-to-be-avoided; nominate both areas as Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas in U. N. International Maritime Organization to better regulate transit ship traffic.

10. Convene a Russia/U.S. scientific working group to enhance conservation management of Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea marine ecosystems across the international border.

11. Re-engage with the Arctic Council to advance marine conservation needs across circumpolar Arctic, in particular working to establish a network of marine protected areas across the Arctic Ocean.

12. Establish an Alaska Ocean Advisory Council representing all stakeholders in Alaska offshore management, to advise government and industry.

13. Increase federal funding for Alaska marine research, particularly on climate change, endangered species, and sustainable fisheries; and better apply research results in ocean management.

This may be our last, best chance to reset Alaska ocean policy in time to save our offshore ecosystems. President Biden has already proven he wants to go big on environmental policy. We’re optimistic that this will include comprehensive, permanent protections in Alaska’s spectacular, but troubled, oceans.

Rick Steiner is a marine conservation biologist in Anchorage. He has consulted for the United Nations, governments, International Union for Conservation of Nature and organizations around the world; was professor of marine conservation with the University of Alaska based in the Arctic, Prince William Sound, and Anchorage; is a former Alaska commercial fisherman; serves on the Board of Advisors for The Ocean Foundation; and is author of “Oasis Earth: Planet in Peril.”

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