President 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 effort must be Alaska’s vast, but troubled, offshore waters.
Although we have a patchwork of temporary fishery management restrictions, astonishingly there are no permanent federal offshore marine protected areas such as National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments in Alaska waters (the inside waters of Glacier Bay National Park are a separate, unique case). The Marine Conservation Institute confirms that, while half of all waters in the Pacific Islands region are “strongly protected,” none of Alaska’s waters currently receive such protection. None.
Significant federal lands were protected in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Conservation Act (ANILCA), but Alaska’s waters have not received comparable protection. As the Obama administration ignored our proposals to address this, President Biden must now 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 fishing and tourism economy.
But all is not well in Alaska’s oceans. Most of Alaska’s threatened and endangered species are marine animals, and many seabird and marine mammal populations are in decline — the result of excessive harvests of certain fish populations in combination with long-term changes in the ocean environment.
Climate change is reducing sea ice 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; and invasive species are a growing concern.
Alaska’s oceans are dying, and the Biden administration offers a long-overdue opportunity to fix this. Here is some of what the administration should do:
• Commission the National Academy of Sciences to conduct an 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, present and future threats, and specific management tools to remedy such threats;
• From this assessment, formulate an Alaska National Interest Oceans Conservation Initiative, establishing permanent federal marine reserves, Marine National Monuments, and/or National Marine Sanctuaries (e.g. Aleutian Islands/Unimak Pass/Pribilof Islands; Bering Strait; Chukchi Sea/Beaufort Sea). These protected areas should prioritize protections for Alaska Native subsistence, small-boat coastal fisheries, and marine recreation and tourism economies;
• Permanently prohibit offshore oil and gas leasing in Alaska’s federal waters (3 to 200 miles offshore);
• After rejoining the Paris climate accord, advocate far more aggressive emissions reductions by all nations;
• Institute a robust program to reduce marine debris, invasive species and persistent organic pollutants in Alaska waters;
• Develop an Alaska Blue Economy Initiative to enhance sustainable jobs and economies in Alaska’s federal waters — subsistence, tourism, small boat fisheries, mariculture, low-carbon ocean energy development;
• Support coastal villages with climate adaptation needs, including relocation, food security and resilient infrastructure;
• Reduce the total allowable catch of certain fish stocks to increase prey availability for declining seabird and marine mammal populations;
• Establish a Russia/U.S. scientific working group to enhance conservation management of Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea marine ecosystems across the border;
• Engage with the Arctic Council to establish a network of marine protected areas across the circumpolar Arctic Ocean;
• Establish an Alaska Ocean Advisory Council representing all stakeholders in Alaska offshore management, to advise government and industry;
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 conservation biologist in Anchorage, former professor with the University of Alaska for 30 years (from which he resigned on principle due to an academic freedom dispute with university administrators), and has worked on climate change issues for decades.