NOAA Shies Away From Aleutians Marine Sanctuary
National Monument Designation May be Only Route for Protecting Alaskan Waters
Washington, DC — A proposal to name the Aleutian Islands marine ecosystem as Alaska’s first National Marine Sanctuary has run aground on local political opposition, according to a letter from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, the only path to obtain permanent federal protection for Alaska waters may be designation as a national monument by President Obama using his powers under the Antiquities Act.
In 2014, the Obama administration reopened a long-closed public nomination process for new marine sanctuaries. In December, PEER proposed sanctuary status for federal waters along the Aleutian Islands archipelago, Pribilof Islands and Bristol Bay. The sanctuary would cover 554,000 square nautical miles, even larger than the Pacific Remote Islands monument expanded this past September by President Obama. It would create the largest marine protected area in U.S. waters and one of the largest in the world.
In a letter dated January 23, 2015, NOAA Marine Sanctuaries Director Daniel Basta indicated that it would not further consider the Aleutians nomination “primarily” due to local opposition. While the letter did not foreclose future action and ended with a call for “continuing work with you on this important nomination,” it did not indicate what level of state and local support would be required for further consideration except to state that “we are not looking for unanimous support from all potential interests.”
“While we are disappointed by NOAA’s reaction, we remain undeterred,” said Richard Steiner, a member of the PEER Board of Directors and a retired University of Alaska professor of marine conservation, noting that more than half of Alaska’s lands have permanent federal protection yet virtually none of its waters do. “We cannot have a viable national marine conservation strategy that continues to ignore Alaska. Forty years ago, the Carter administration boldly used its executive authority to expand Alaska’s spectacular terrestrial parklands, and now we need the Obama administration to be equally as bold in permanently protecting Alaska’s offshore ecosystems.”
In reaction to the PEER proposal, U.S. Representative Don Young (R-AK) has led the charge in stirring up local opposition and has introduced legislation barring designating any new marine sanctuaries in Alaska without Congressional approval. In a recent press release, Rep. Young denounced “a cabal of environmental interest groups –led by PEER” for “unilaterally closing off vast areas of Alaska to critical economic activities like fishing, natural resource development and marine commerce.”
In fact, the PEER nomination safeguarded Alaska Native marine subsistence and small-boat fisheries but would curb industrial scale fishing while banning oil and gas development. In addition, the treacherous waters of Aleutian passes result in many sinking, groundings and spills yet have no established traffic lanes, speed limits, weather or ice transit restrictions and little ability to even track vessels.
“The Aleutians are one of the most economically and environmentally important yet least protected marine ecosystems on the planet,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, arguing that national interests cannot be held hostage to parochial politics. “If Don Young was in charge of setting national policy, Alaska would still be owned by the Russians.”