Aleutians Should Be Alaska’s First National Marine Sanctuary
Nomination Calls for First Permanent Federal Eco-Protections in Alaska Waters
Washington, DC — The Aleutian Islands marine ecosystem deserves designation as Alaska’s first National Marine Sanctuary, according to a formal nomination spearheaded by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and several Alaska and national marine conservation organizations. Although more than half of Alaska’s lands receive permanent federal protection, virtually none of Alaska’s federal waters receive comparable protective status.
The Aleutians marine ecosystem is one of the most ecologically important on the planet, supporting the largest populations of marine mammals, seabirds, fish and shellfish in the nation and one of the largest anywhere in the world. Yet, Aleutian waters face serious and growing threats from overfishing, oil and gas development and increasing shipping with scant protection. These threats are, in turn, aggravated by the growing effects of climate change, including rising sea-level and ocean acidification.
“The Aleutians are one of the most spectacular and productive marine ecosystems in the world but has been in decline for decades, and needs our urgent attention,” said Richard Steiner, a member of the PEER Board of Directors and a retired University of Alaska professor of marine conservation. “If the Obama administration is serious about taking big, bold steps to conserve our oceans, this is the place and this is the time. An Aleutians National Marine Sanctuary would bring integrated, permanent and effective measures to halt further deterioration and begin to restore this extraordinary ocean ecosystem.”
The proposed sanctuary would contain all federal waters along the entire Aleutian Islands archipelago (from 3 to 200 nautical miles north and south of the islands) to the Alaska mainland, including federal waters off the Pribilof Islands and Bristol Bay, an area of approximately 554,000 square nautical miles, making it the largest marine protected area in the nation, and one of the largest in the world.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration signaled its interest in entertaining nominations for new nationally significant marine sanctuaries from the public. While the process for final designation as a marine sanctuary takes months, the nomination can set the stage for a rapid designation as a national monument by President Obama under the Antiquities Act. This September, he used this executive power to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (first established by President G. W. Bush) to 370,000 square nautical miles, thereby creating one of the world’s largest marine protected areas.
Last week, President Obama extended the withdrawal of the Bristol Bay region from offshore oil leasing, but this leaves open the prospect that Congress or a future administration could reopen the area. This sanctuary designation would specifically preclude such action.
The current National Marine Sanctuary System is a network of 14 marine protected areas covering more than 170,000 square miles from the Florida Keys to American Samoa, including Thunder Bay on Lake Huron. There is no National Marine Sanctuary in Alaskan waters. The Aleutians would be the first.
“If the Midwest is America’s breadbasket, then the Aleutians are America’s fish-basket; U.S. marine conservation strategy can no longer ignore Alaska,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that half of the nation’s entire shoreline and three-fourths of our total continental shelf are in Alaska while its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone is more than twice the size of Alaska’s land area. “Without near-term national conservation intervention, the Aleutians face the prospect of ecological collapse.”