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Unprotected: Bristol Bay, Alaska - World's Fish Basket

Bristol Bay is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world, home to the largest wild sockeye salmon runs in the world; important nursery grounds for red king crab and Pacific halibut; staging areas and wintering grounds for tens of millions of seabirds; and a feeding ground and migration corridor for marine mammals, including five endangered species.

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Epicenter of the Bering Sea fishery
The proposed oil and gas lease area identified by the Minerals Management Service within the North Aleutian Basin (Bristol Bay) overlaps key commercial fishing grounds and habitat for pollock, cod, and king and tanner crab. Bristol Bay contributes heavily to the productivity of the Bering Sea fisheries, which accounts for over $2 billion dollars in revenue annually. See Alaska Marine Conservation Council's assessment of commercial fisheries values here

World's largest run of wild sockeye salmon
The value of the commercial sockeye salmon fishery was $106 million dollars in 2006 - with over 39 million salmon migrating through the area proposed for leasing on their way to spawn in the headwaters of Bristol Bay. The area proposed for development overlaps with out-migration routes for smolts and the migration routes for adults returning to rivers throughout western Alaska and the Arctic.

Even a small oil spill or any environmental mishap in the region could damage branding and marketing efforts currently underway for Bristol Bay wild salmon.

Irreplaceable wildlife habitat
Bristol Bay is vital habitat for several marine mammal species including North Pacific right whales, Steller sea loins, Pacific walrus and sea otters and is the site of one of the world's greatest concentrations of seabirds. Several of these species are listed as endangered, such as the North Pacific right whale, whose only known summertime feeding grounds overlap the area proposed for leasing.

A dozen State and Federal protected areas surrounding southeast Bristol Bay could be threatened by oil spills or other development related mishaps.

National Wildlife Refuges:
Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge
Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
Becharof National Wildlife Refuge
Togiak National Wildlife Refuge

State Refuges:
Izembek State Refuge
State Refuge

State Critical Habitat Areas:
Cape Newenham
Pilot Point
Port Heiden
Port Moller

State Sanctuaries:
Walrus Island

Bristol Bay: Sustainable fisheries, sustainable future

An important source of food and cultural identity
The harvest of food such as fish, wildlife and plants from the region is essential to the maintenance of cultural traditions and as a primary source of sustenance for many Native Alaskans residing in Bristol Bay. Over the region annual harvests of food found in the wild total about 265,000 pounds per year or about 211 pounds per person. The subsistence harvest contributes approximately 20% of the populations calories. Fish represents more than half the wild food consumed.

Protection found and lost - timeline of events
1986 - Lease Sale 92 offered 5.6 million acres in Bristol Bay and the southeast Bering Sea for offshore leasing
1989 - After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a renewed outcry to protect Bristol Bay from offshore drilling resulted in Bristol Bay being added to a nearly-nationwide congressional moratorium on offshore oil and gas leasing
1990 - Protection for Bristol Bay was reinforced by a presidential withdrawal of the region from the federal offshore leasing program. The withdrawal, sometimes referred to as an executive deferral or presidential moratorium, was first enacted by President George Bush in 1990 and extended until 2012 by President Bill Clinton
1995 - Because the leases were made inactive by the moratorium, the Department of Interior reached a settlement to buyback the leases, calling it a "landmark protection for fragile offshore resources"
2003 - Congress removed Bristol Bay from the offshore moratorium
2007 - On January 7, President Bush lifted the executive withdrawal for Bristol Bay, its last layer of protection. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) has proposed holding lease sales in 2010 and 2012
Today - a broad coalition of stakeholders recommend the removal of Bristol Bay from the five-year plan.

Current Mineral Management Services plan
Despite the risks associated with offshore oil and gas development in Bristol Bay, the Minerals Management Service included Bristol Bay in their Draft Proposed Program for Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil & Gas Leasing for 2007-2012. The draft 5-year plan calls for two lease sales in the North Aleutian Basin which includes the federal offshore waters of Bristol Bay and the eastern Bering Sea.

To read the Mineral Management Services proposed 5-year plan  for Bristol Bay (North Aleutian Basin) go to

Fishermen, community leaders and conservationist concerned with the potential for catastrophic impacts of oil and gas development in Bristol Bay are emphatic about the need to conduct the scientific studies and analysis necessary to understand the ecosystem and anticipate the potential consequences of development. World Wildlife and the Audubon Society site the following as major shortcomings of the MMS

  • Inadequate analysis of climate change and cumulative impacts associated with oil and gas development two key species, the polar bear and walrus, are examples of wildlife whose habitat will be adversely affected by the combination of oil and gas development in a region already impacted by climate change);
  • Incomplete analysis of impacts from spilled oil, as well as a complete lack of acknowledgement of lessons learned from the largest oil spill in history, the Exxon Valdez spill. No mention of well-documented long-term consequences of this spill, whose devastating impacts are still being felt b people and wildlife today,
  • Inadequate consideration of the potential for migratory birds and mammals to experience additive impacts;
  • Inadequate acknowledgement of data gaps that limit evaluation of potential environmental impacts;
  • Incomplete assessment of areas that are important for marine and coastal birds; and inadequate consideration of bird species whose populations are considered to be "at risk" yet are not designated yet as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act; and
  • Inadequate consideration of invasive species as a potential environmental impact accompanying the introduction of new vessels and equipment into OCS waters.

The Minerals Management Service (MMS) predicted that offshore operations in Bristol Bay would result in at least one large oil spill (between 1,000 and 10,000 barrels) and numerous smaller spills. Oil spills in this area would devastate several species of fish and crab that Bristol Bay, which serves as a nursery, juvenile, breeding, feeding and migratory area.

Bristol Bay and the North Aleutian shelf are home to intense storms with high winds and massive seas through the winter months. Offshore infrastructure would be exposed to the full fury of these storms at a time of year when response efforts would be effectively impossible. Even the seismic testing required to find oil and gas reserves is known to disturb marine mammals and even fish and crab.

Poor odds - small returns
In Bristol Bay, it is estimated that drilling would produce 230 million barrels of oil and 6.79 trillion cubic feet of gas. Oil would be produced for 18 years and gas for 22 years before supplies ran out. By international standards this is relatively small offshore oil and gas potential in Bristol Bay. Geologists consider the prospect and ease of finding oil and gas offshore in Bristol Bay as low.

The economic benefits of renewable fisheries resources far outweigh the estimated potential economic value of nonrenewable offshore oil and gas resources. According to the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) the total value of recoverable oil and gas from offshore development has been estimated at $7.7 billion dollars over the entire 25-40 year lifespan of the project. Every year of offshore drilling would put an estimated $2 billion dollar annual fisheries economy at risk.

Congress must act
Without Congressional action to restore protection to this area, leasing could occur in as little as four years.

Ask your members of Congress to cosponsor the Bristol Bay Protection Act (H.R.1957/ S. 1311), which would permanently protect Bristol Bay from offshore oil and gas leasing and development.

10 reasons not to drill Bristol Bay
Check out Alaska Marine Conservation Council's Top 10 list

Oil & Gas Development in Bristol Bay: High Risk Low Return brochure

WWF Bering Sea

Alaska Marine Conservation Council/Friends of Bristol Bay

Alaska Oceans Program