Editor's note: this article has been updated to reflect that PEER did circulate a draft petition to local and tribal organizations but did not receive their support, clarify the alleged mischaracterization of the Aleutians Island sanctuary opposition, and clarify Steiner's quote on American taxpayers.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejected a nomination to establish the Aleutian Islands National Marine Sanctuary on Jan. 23. Washington, D.C. conservation group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, submitted the nomination to the administration on Dec. 22, 2014.
The Washington group concerns itself with protecting the mammals, sea birds, and submersed marine life in the entire Aleutians archipelago from overfishing, marine transportation, and oil and gas development.
In 2014, President Barack Obama extended a moratorium on oil and gas leasing in Bristol Bay, and PEER is concerned the area might be reopened later if no permanent federal intervention takes place. The sanctuary would have encompassed all federal waters 200 miles north and south of the Aleutian Islands, including parts of the western Gulf of Alaska and southeast Bering Sea, putting restrictions on oil and gas leasing and transportation. It called for preservation of existing fisheries management, which means no new restrictions to commercial fishing, but also that no additional fishing opportunity would be allowed.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, explains in their response letter to PEER that they rejected the nomination based on a lack of support or consultation from involved communities.
“When [Office of National Marine Sanctuaries] considers this aspect of a nomination, we are not looking for unanimous support from all potential interests, but rather representative support from a diverse cross section of the community,” wrote Daniel Basta, the director of Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, the branch of NOAA that reviews sanctuary nominations.
The nomination was ill-received by Alaskans in the Aleutian Islands due in large part to the possibility of negative impacts on the commercial fishing industry, on which many Aleutian Islands communities rely for their economic health, from both directed fisheries and processing.
The Aleutians East Borough, or AEB, received $3.2 million in 2014 from raw fish tax, according to a January assembly meeting report. AEB representatives said they had not been consulted about the marine sanctuary by PEER and only learned about it after its submission to NOAA.
“We’ve never been invited to participate in any meetings or offer any comments on the effects it would have,” said Stanley Mack, mayor of the AEB.
Mack’s concerns are less about the sanctuary proposal itself than the interpretations that might come later down the line necessitating fishing restrictions for conservation purposes. As it stood, the sanctuary nomination only made restrictions on bottom trawlers, cutting off all trawling west of 170 degrees west longitude, an area already largely cut off for Steller sea lion preservation.
AEB natural resources director Ernie Weiss confirmed that several stakeholders including Frank Kelty, natural resource analyst for Unalaska, were in the process of preparing a white paper opposing the nomination to be presented to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council during their upcoming February meeting.
Retired University of Alaska professor and marine biologist Richard Steiner helped draft PEER’s nomination request.
He says the sanctuary intended to save the exact fisheries the AEB is worried about by limiting damaging environmental impacts. Steiner acknowledged that the AEB and other communities were left out of the process due to anticipated opposition, but said PEER did have the support of contact dozens of other local and tribal organizations in the Aleutians, including all tribes within the Alaska Intertribal Council, and had the support of Pat Pletnikoff, the mayor of St. George. Contacting opposing parties for comment, he says, would have done nothing to change their minds.
Steiner says the appearance of unanimous local opposition total area closure was an intentional mischaracterization of the issue by Alaska politicians and NOAA regional administrators. Alaska Rep. Bryce Edgmon introduced a bill on Jan. 21 opposing the nomination, which was signed by Alaska Speaker of the House Mike Chenault.
Regardless of support, Steiner believes the national conservation interests should supersede the local opposition.
“I get that the small communities involved get disproportionate representation,” said Steiner. “But there are 300 million other American citizens who co-own and co-manage these federal waters who deserve a say in how they are managed, who are taxed for federal management.”
The nomination, Steiner said, was a way to test the waters in Alaska regarding an Aleutians reserve. Since NOAA rejected the Aleutians nomination, Steiner is looking to presidential authority to hopefully establish something similar to the 1980 Alaska National Lands Interest Conservation Act, created from a Carter administration federal monument designation in 1977, which reserved over 100 million acres of Alaska land as federal national parks.
The designation is needed, Steiner says, because Alaska marine ecosystems will always be held under the thumb of local interests without foresight for the ecosystem or consideration for the potential tourism dollars national parks and monuments bring.
“It’s clear that there will never be a marine sanctuary in Alaska,” Steiner said. “NOAA is deferring exclusively to local parochial interests. A lot of people look at the ocean as some magical black box that revenue comes out of, regardless of the effects to the ecosystem. We’re hoping that the president will be bold and declare the area a national monument. ”
Steiner’s hope has proven well founded over the last week. The nomination takes place in the larger political arena of a Republican Congress bucking against unilateral executive actions. President Barack Obama proposed on Jan. 25 to set 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, aside as wilderness, effectively halting any oil development.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young all drafted letters of disapproval. They declared the ANWR expansion a war on Alaska interests that undermines the state’s right to determine land usage, effectively turning the nation’s largest state into the nation’s largest national park instead.
On Jan. 27, Obama also designated 9.8 million acres of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas as a marine sanctuary, halting oil and gas leasing in those areas as well as ANWR. In 2014, Obama used his power under the Antiquities Act to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine Sanctuary, established by President George W. Bush, from 87,000 square miles to more than 490,000 square miles, closing the area to a small amount of commercial tuna fishery.
Only days before the ANWR designation, on Jan. 22, Young introduced H.R. 330 to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would restrict the president’s authority to independently create national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Theodore Roosevelt created the Antiquities Act specifically to make national parks without congressional oversight. Young’s bill would make the designation process congressional instead of executive.
The president will undoubtedly veto such legislation. Without the congressional support to override a veto, Young says he will try to negate Obama’s ANWR expansion by denying funding through House appropriations.
“We’ll put in our appropriations bills that no money will be spent on implementation of the preservation of the coastal plain,” said Young in a telephone interview Journal.
Young says the offshore Chukchi and Beaufort sea designation worries him more, as he has less control over their leasing and appropriations, but that he will certainly halt any future executive designations for the Aleutians through appropriations denial.
“First of all, who are these people [PEER]?” Young said. “They’re not Alaskans. That designation would be devastating to the fishing industry and to our communities.”
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]