In the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Congress cautiously banned offshore drilling in another Alaskan jewel – Bristol Bay, a major source of seafood and home to the world's largest wild sockeye salmon run.
Now, two decades later, Bristol Bay has lost its special protection, and the threat of oil exploration and drilling is imminent. President George W. Bush withdrew the ban on oil leasing in 2007 and included the bay in a five-year plan for oil lease sales. Now the U.S. Secretary of the Interior is considering whether to stick with that plan and allow oil and gas development in about one-fifth, or 5.6 million acres, of the bay - an area more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.
The proposal would put oil drilling operations in the heart of one of the nation's richest fishing grounds. The region provides 40 percent of the country's seafood catch and supports an important habitat for crab, salmon, herring, Pollock, cod and flatfish.
This plan doesn't make sense environmentally or economically.
The U.S. Mineral Management Service predicts oil drilling is expected to generate $7 billion over 25 to 40 years. Yet sustainable fisheries in the bay and the southeast Bering Sea that could be affected by drilling are valued at more than $2 billion every year, according to the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
The potential for environmental disaster is real. The Interior Department's own environmental assessment predicts one large oil spill and numerous smaller spills during the undetermined amount of time that oil projects would continue. A large spill could contaminate Bristol Bay's shores, inter-tidal waters and fish habitat for many years.
And the impact of a large oil spill would extend well beyond the 5.6 million acres included in the proposed lease sale. It would likely harm salmon that spawn upstream in the bay's tributaries, not to mention important habitat for marine mammals, such as the Pacific walrus and the endangered North Pacific right whale. Beyond spills, animals also would be affected by exploration activities and contaminated discharges from drilling operations.
Like the rest of the north, the bay's ecosystem is already stressed from climate change and ocean acidification. Offshore oil and gas activities would exacerbate these threats.
More than 30 Alaska tribes depend on the area's fish and wildlife to maintain their culture and subsistence way of life. A majority of these tribes are opposed to the oil and gas leasing plan.
These tribes must have a voice in developing an Alaska-based solution for managing Bristol Bay for future generations. And that plan should begin with the Interior Secretary's rejection of oil drilling in the bay.
Better yet, President Barack Obama could issue a presidential order to withdraw Bristol Bay from oil and gas development, meaning the bay would be protected until a future president decided to open it for exploration and drilling.
The Exxon Valdez taught us the dangers of oil operations in a sensitive ecosystem. Oil from that spill is still seeping out of the shores of Bristol Bay - researchers recently found that oil just a few inches below the surface was dissipating up to 1,000 times slower than oil on the surface, possibly because a lack of oxygen and nutrients in the gravel.
Bristol Bay is too valuable to risk harming. Let's not sacrifice our seafood and an ecological treasure for oil. For more information, please visit www.PewArcticOceans.org