U.S. President Barack Obama has signed an Executive Order to enhance the resilience of the Alaskan Arctic environment and the sustainability of Alaskan native communities with the creation of the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.
The unprecedented action is in direct response to the Tribes along the coast of the Bering Sea, who petitioned the President for the protection. The Bering Sea Elders Group, with delegates from 39 tribes, passed a resolution as one voice and traveled to Washington, D.C. to ask the Administration for help.
The Area, encompassing 112,300 square miles, represents a hugely productive, high-latitude ocean ecosystem and supports one of the largest seasonal marine mammal migrations in the world, including thousands of bowhead and beluga whales, hundreds of thousands of walruses and ice seals and millions of migratory birds.
It is home to more than 40 tribes of coastal Yup’ik and Inupiaq peoples whose way of life has been linked with the marine environment for thousands of years. Native villages in the northern Bering Sea region of Alaska largely practice a subsistence-based lifestyle that is inextricably tied to the rich marine ecosystem of the Bering Sea.
Warming ocean temperatures, sea ice loss and increasing ship traffic threaten the subsistence practices and food security of these communities.
“Whales, walruses, seals, and millions of seabirds travel by our islands and coastal villages. Our culture formed around this powerful phenomenon. It is where our stories come from, the foundation of our traditional knowledge,” said Frank Oxereok, the Elder Representative from Wales on the Bering Sea Elders Group, and one of the elders who traveled to Washington, D.C. in support of the President’s action. “I appreciate the President’s announcement because he really listened to us and understands what is at stake for our Tribes.”
The Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area is delineated for the purpose of focusing a locally-tailored collection of protections related to oil and gas, shipping, and fishing. The Executive Order:
• establishes the boundaries of an area in which the federal policy is to enhance the resilience of communities in the face of climate change, support subsistence cultures, and make decisions taking into account “the rights and needs of the Alaska Native tribes”;
• withdraws from consideration for oil and gas the Norton Sound Basin and a 25-mile buffer around St. Lawrence Island to protect hunting areas;
• creates a federal task force to coordinate with the State, municipalities and corporations, as well as creates the first Intergovernmental Tribal Advisory Council to consult with and provide advice to federal agencies;
• directs the consideration of indigenous knowledge in federal decision making;
• enhances oil spill preparedness; and
• directs the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to employ the policies protecting subsistence in this order when establishing or altering fishing practices, among several other provisions.
In addition to the new protections, the Obama Administration is announcing approximately $30 million in philanthropic commitments for projects in rural northern Alaska and Canada. These projects include investments over the next three years related to shipping, ecosystem science, community and ecological resilience and tribal engagement.
In recognition of the increase in shipping through the Bering Strait, the U.S. Coast Guard is nearing completion of a Port Access Route Study (PARS) for the region. A PARS is the first step in assessing the need for vessel traffic control measures and developing a set of recommendations.
Any recommended international routing measures would be submitted to the IMO. The Executive Order directs the Coast Guard to give careful consideration to community recommendations regarding environmentally sensitive areas to be avoided, to publish its initial findings by the end of 2016 and to move its conclusions to the IMO for action by 2018.
Sea bottom habitat is extremely important to the ecosystem in the Northern Bering Sea and helps to support the incredible abundance of marine mammals and sea birds in the region, including critical subsistence resources. In recognition of these connections, bottom trawling is already banned in the region to protect the sea floor. The Executive Order makes it Federal policy to support the continued prohibition on bottom trawling, which destroys sensitive benthic ecosystems.
Oil and Gas
Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the President has withdrawn Norton Basin planning area and portions of the St. Matthew-Hall planning area from future oil and gas leasing to further protect the regional ecosystem and coastal communities. The five year leasing plans issued by the Department of the Interior do not include plans for leasing in the withdrawn areas, so there will not need to be changes to those plans to reflect the withdrawal. The total area withdrawn from leasing through this Executive Order is 40,300 square miles.
Coordination and Consultation
The Executive Order establishes a Federal Task Force on the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area (Bering Task Force), under the Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC) established by Executive Order 13689. The Bering Task Force will coordinate Federal activity and consider additional mechanisms to reduce impacts to subsistence and cultural activities within the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.
The Executive Order also formally elevates the voice of Alaskan native tribes and the role of indigenous knowledge in decision-making within the region by mandating that the Task Force establish and engage in regular consultation with a Bering Intergovernmental Tribal Advisory Council, which will consist primarily of tribal government representatives with participation from Federal, state, and local officials for coordination purposes. Together, these two groups will guide the incorporation of valuable traditional knowledge and science into Federal resource management in the northern Bering Sea region.
The Executive Order is available here.
An animal migration map is available here.