U.S. Should Strengthen Protection of Northern Bering Sea, for Its People and Wildlife

Climate change, increased vessel traffic, and industrial fishing threaten region and its Indigenous communities

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U.S. Should Strengthen Protection of Northern Bering Sea, for Its People and Wildlife
Two men crouch at the water’s edge along a rocky beach next to a metal-hulled boat, cleaning the salmon they have caught. Several salmon have been placed behind them on a white blanket.
Two Yup’ik men clean salmon along the coast of the Northern Bering Sea near their village of Newtok, Alaska. The area’s ecologically rich waters are essential to the culture of peoples who have lived there for millennia.
Andrew Burton Getty Images

The Northern Bering Sea, off the coast of western Alaska, is one of the most culturally and ecologically rich places on earth. The region’s waters have been integral to the culture and well-being of the local Yup’ik, Cup’ik, St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik, and Iñupiaq peoples for millennia. It’s also home to one of the world’s largest marine mammal migrations, including bowhead and beluga whales, walruses, and ice seals. The Bering Sea also produces nearly 40% of the seafood consumed in the U.S.

But the Northern Bering Sea faces significant threats, including some of the largest industrial-scale fishing operations in the world. It’s also experiencing dramatic impacts from climate change, including declining ocean health, habitat damage, loss of sea ice, and a near-total collapse of salmon returns, all of which pose an existential threat to Indigenous communities. These changes are coupled with pressure from increasing vessel traffic, salmon bycatch, marine debris, and the expansion of commercial fishing. As a result, robust and lasting protections and management approaches are needed for the Northern Bering Sea to help ensure the health of the region’s ecosystem and Indigenous communities.

An overhead shot shows two grayish whales, one larger and one smaller, swimming in dark blue water bordered by ice on either side.
A mother bowhead whale and its calf swim through a polynya—a stretch of open water surrounded by ice—in the Northern Bering Sea. The region is home to one of the world’s largest marine mammal migrations, which includes beluga whales, walruses, and ice seals in addition to bowheads.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Recognizing the cultural and ecological significance of the region and the threat from fishing, federal fishery managers took action in 2008 to prohibit destructive bottom trawling in the Northern Bering Sea until there was adequate scientific information on the potential impacts of this fishing gear on the ecosystem. In 2016, President Barack Obama established the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area through an executive order, which prohibited oil and gas exploration for over 112,000 square miles of ocean habitat and created a framework for advancing Tribal co-management of the area and incorporating Traditional knowledge into decision-making.

Although these actions provide some protection, Tribes in the region, ocean advocates, and others have voiced concern that the safeguards may be short-lived or otherwise inadequate, given the threats. The Climate Resilience Area, for instance, was repealed by President Donald Trump when he came into office in 2017, and it took President Biden reinstating the original executive order, which he did on his first day in office, to re-establish the protections.

More recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation in May that would once again repeal the Climate Resilience Area, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has proposed a study to evaluate the impacts of re-introducing bottom trawling in the Northern Bering Sea. And there is no dedicated federal funding to support implementing the Climate Resilience Area, including establishment of the Intergovernmental Tribal Advisory Council, which is a new entity mandated by the executive order currently in place to help ensure that Tribes in the region have a meaningful role in shaping policies that affect their ancestral waters, food sovereignty, and way of life.

On the edge of the blue waters of the Bering Strait, a cluster of houses and buildings area is illuminated by sun breaking through the clouds. A ship and mountains can be seen in the background.
The town of Teller, Alaska, sits along the Northern Bering Sea near the narrowest portion of the Bering Strait. The region needs robust and lasting protections to ensure the health of the ecosystem and its Indigenous communities.
Nikki Kahn The Washington Post via Getty Images

Critical protections and advancements in co-management for the Northern Bering Sea should not be subject to changes in political landscape nor pressure from industry. As the threats to the ecosystem and Indigenous communities in the region continue to compound, now is not the time to roll back needed safeguards. Instead, federal leaders must take action to conserve this ecologically and culturally critical ecosystem by permanently prohibiting destructive bottom trawling in the Northern Bering Sea and providing durable support for the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area. This support should include long-term funding for the Intergovernmental Tribal Advisory Council and a commitment to co-developing a comprehensive plan for addressing the salmon crisis in the Northern Bering Sea.

The Pew Charitable Trusts will continue to support Tribal efforts to implement the executive order establishing the Climate Resilience Area in order to ensure lasting protections for the Northern Bering Sea. Pew will also keep working to make sure that Tribes have a central role in conserving and managing their ancestral lands and waters.

Steve Marx supports Alaska Indigenous peoples’ fishery management and marine conservation priorities for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. conservation project.

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