Protecting Our Most Productive Fishery

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President Barack Obama recently announced a halt to offshore oil and gas leasing in Alaska's ecologically rich Bristol Bay, a decision that should be applauded for temporarily eliminating a serious threat to these lucrative fishing grounds. But those who have been fighting for more than 25 years to protect these waters from drilling know that this is not enough. It is time to permanently protect the nation's most productive fishery.

Bristol Bay and the southeast Bering Sea are home to some of the best-managed, most prolific fisheries in the world, including the largest runs of wild sockeye salmon anywhere and abundant stocks of cod, crab, halibut, herring and pollock. Their $2 billion annual fishing industry provides a powerful economic engine supporting thousands of fishermen from Alaska and the West Coast - and contributing 40 percent of the nation's seafood.

More than 900 Bristol Bay salmon fishermen live in Washington state, as well as an additional 1,100 who hold permits for other Bering Sea fisheries.

The fight to protect these fisheries dates back to 1986 when the federal government leased 5.6 million acres at the southern end of Bristol Bay for oil drilling, despite vehement opposition from local communities, the fishing industry and the state of Alaska. After the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in 1989, Congress rushed to suspend these leases. Even then, it took until 1995 to buy them back at taxpayers' expense for $100 million.

Eight years later, Congress lifted its ban on drilling there but in 2007, President George W. Bush re-opened the area to oil development after cancelling a presidential withdrawal left by President Bill Clinton. Now, President Obama has again shielded Bristol Bay by withdrawing it from oil and gas leasing until 2017.

The risks of drilling in Bristol Bay are tremendous, while the potential benefits are minimal. The area is estimated to hold only 1 percent of the oil in all of the nation's Outer Continental Shelf and 2 percent of our gas reserves. Yet the risks posed by drilling could devastate the region's fisheries.

Accidents happen, and there's a reason that the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" series is filmed in Bristol Bay. Its harsh weather, rough seas, ice and strong currents are surpassed in severity only by conditions in the Arctic Ocean. Cleanup and containment of an oil spill in broken ice or bad weather would be difficult, if not impossible.

Only about 5 percent of the oil from the Exxon Valdez spill was ever recovered. A blowout last year on a state-of-the-art oil rig in the warm, calm waters of Australia's Timor Sea spewed oil for 74 days before it could be capped. Even in the absence of a catastrophic spill, oil development introduces risks such as the discharge of contaminated drilling mud and the construction of rigs and pipelines that disrupt prime fishing grounds.

Opposition to drilling in Bristol Bay is overwhelming. Last September, about 300,000 Americans called on the Obama administration to protect Bristol Bay, including 1,000 local fishermen, 60 fishing organizations, related businesses and Alaska Indians who live in the region. They said that we still have the chance to do it right in Bristol Bay. If not, we harm the last bastion of healthy, wild fisheries on this coast and the traditions, heritage and economic benefits that go with it.

The president has taken a major step in the right direction by protecting Bristol Bay over the short term. It is critical that his administration and Congress work toward permanent protection of this pristine region that feeds our country, yields thousands of jobs and provides a legacy for future generations.