President creates Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area
Last week, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order that created a so-called Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience area, spanning from the Kuskokwim Bay to northeast of Shishmaref, all the way to the maritime boundary with Russia.
The stated purpose is “to confront the challenges of a changing Arctic by working to conserve Arctic biodiversity; support and engage Alaska Native tribes; incorporate traditional knowledge into decision-making; and build a sustainable Arctic economy that relies on the highest safety and environmental standards, including adherence to national climate goals.”
The executive order outlines a vision in the northern Bering Sea that excludes from oil and gas development the areas south of St. Lawrence Island, Norton Sound and the southern Bering Strait to Wales and Diomede.
“This withdrawal prevents consideration of these areas for future oil and gas leasing for purposes of exploration, development, or production,” the EO reads.
The directive orders coordinated efforts between federal agencies to pay attention “to the rights, needs and knowledge of Alaska Native tribes; the delicate and unique ecosystem; the protection of marine mammals, fish, seabirds and other wildlife; and with appropriate coordination with the State of Alaska.”
Furthermore the vision includes the creation of a task force on the Northern Bering Sea, co-chaired by representatives from the Dept. of Interior, NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard, with senior-level members from the Dept. of State, the Dept. of Defense, the Dept. of Transportation, the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and the National Science Foundation. The EO also created a Bering Intergovernmental Tribal Advisory Council with the task to advise the Bering Task Force.
The EO directs federal agencies to recognize and value the participation of Alaska Native tribal governments, to consider traditional knowledge in decisions affecting the Bering Sea Climate Resilience area. It goes on to direct the Bering Task Force to develop recommendations to curb vessel pollution and identify zero-discharge zones, do assessments of pollution risks due to increased vessel traffic and noise reduction measures. It also directs the Coast Guard to conclude its ongoing port access route study and that the Coast Guard “consider traditional knowledge, including with respect to marine mammal, waterfowl, and seabird migratory pathways and feeding and breeding grounds, in the development of the Bering Sea PARS, establishment of routing measures and any areas to be avoided, and subsequent rulemaking and management decisions.”
The EO also maintains the current prohibition to commercial trawl fishing in the area.
The issuance of the order was celebrated by tribes of western and northwestern Alaska, who in a “hail Mary” approach petitioned President Barack Obama to take action on the protection of the Northern Bering Sea. Involved were the Bering Sea Elders Group, and the tribal consortiums Kawerak Inc. and the Association of Village Council Presidents, all together comprising 76 tribes that brought their request to the president. The Bering Sea Elders Group said in a press release, “This unprecedented action is in direct response to the Tribes along the Bering Sea, who petitioned the President for this protection.” The Bering Sea Elders Group with delegates from 39 tribes, traveled to Washington DC to ask for help. Last Friday, they received it.
The executive order not only protects the environment, but also the people who depend on it through the subsistence way of living. “It also for the first time creates a formal role for tribes in the decision making so as to ensure that our voices continue to be heard as we deal with the effects of climate change and increase pressures on our resources,” the Bering Sea Elders Group release reads. “Whales, walruses, seals and millions of seabirds travel by our islands and coastal villages,” said Frank Oxereok, a BSEC representative from Wales, who also traveled to Washington. “Our culture formed around this powerful phenomenon. It is where our stories come from, the foundation of our traditional knowledge,” he said.
Charles Degnan of Unalakleet was also involved as a BSEC representative. He stated that the Native people in the region experience the effects of climate change first hand. “The executive order will help the ocean to be more resilient to climate change and help our people prepare for the future. We are doing this for our children and their inheritance,” he said.
Kawerak issued a release celebrating the historic nature for the people of the Bering Strait. According to the press release, the board of directors has directed Kawerak to advocate for tribal involvement in policies concerning the Arctic. “Kawerak looks forward to facilitating involvement of the people most affected by decisions in the Arctic – the people who actually live here – to guide management of the important ocean resources of our region,” Melanie Bahnke wrote in a press release. “Kawerak is particularly appreciative that President Obama has taken this step to promote traditional knowledge in monitoring, observation and research. We also appreciate that this EO will protect the vital subsistence economies that have lasted for millennia.”
A Kawerak resolution passed in June of 2016 specifically asks the President of the United States to take executive action to ensure the natural resources and habitat of the Northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait region are protected so subsistence uses and subsistence practices. It also asks that tribes have formalized roles, beyond consultation, “in federal decision-making regarding actions that may impact hunting and fishing or food security so that traditional knowledge is incorporated.” Finally the resolution calls on the president to take action to strengthen communities and to ensure their economic sustainability.
The Alaska Federation of Natives also issued a statement lauding the EO. “AFN is encouraged by the effort to raise the role of Alaska Natives tribes and organizations affected in decisions which affect them directly,” said Julie Kitka, AFN President. “It is another step in a long process to address the critical economic, cultural and subsistence food security needs of our people. What is needed next is investment in infrastructure and greater opportunities to build a sustainable economy.”
Kitka stated that AFN appreciates several other steps taken in tandem with the Executive Order, including the U.S. Department of Commerce’s deployment of an Economic Development Assessment Team to Nome to help the region diversify, grow its economy, and address challenges related to climate change and community resilience.
It is apparent that the EO was requested by Bering Sea coastal residents. The steps outlined in the EO were requested by coastal tribes from the Kuskokwim to Shishmaref.
However, in response to the EO, the congressional delegation issued a joint press release that “slams” the EO and incorrectly states that the decision was made “unilaterally.”
Senator Dan Sullivan vowed to work with Senator Lisa Murkowski, Congressman Don Young and the incoming administration “to repair the damage done by eight years of the Obama administration.”
“Once again, the Obama administration has used unilateral action to hurt Alaskans. This executive order, drafted behind closed doors, unilaterally closes fishing grounds, removes oil and gas leasing, and creates hurdles to shipping, all with the stroke of a pen—without any consultation with the State, Alaska’s Congressional delegation, or public notice, consultation, or comment,” said Senator Dan Sullivan.
Senator Lisa Murkowski said she had no idea what the EO means. “This is the first time we have ever seen the term ‘climate resilience area’ in Alaska or anywhere else,” Senator Lisa Murkowski said. “We have no idea what that designation is supposed to mean, what legal authority it is supposed to rest on, what the limitations for it will be, or what it will mean for subsistence, shipping, fishing, and other activities in western and northern Alaska. To me, this sure sounds like a euphemism for a marine monument, because it locks up over 112,000 square miles of Alaska waters and seems destined to impact a wide range of communities, tribes, and industries in our state. While I strongly support meaningful consultation with tribes, this opens the door to a whole host of unknowns, and could easily be misapplied to block even the most responsible Arctic subsistence, activities, and development.”
Congressman Don Young took his response one step further. “Thank God the Obama Administration only has 42 days left in office; we will be working to undo this action come January 20th,” said Congressman Don Young. “This is just another example of federal agencies attempting to exert their authority over the Alaskan and American people.”
Responding to an email from the Nome Nugget to the White House with the request to clarify how the EO came about, Deputy Principal Press Secretary Eric Schultz said on Friday in a press briefing, “…it’s in response to requests we’ve gotten from indigenous people up there that the coastal tribes along the Northern Bering Sea and the Bering Strait requested that the federal government take this action to protect the health of marine ecosystems of the Northern Bering Sea while maintaining opportunities for sustainable fishing and sustainable economic development. So this was the right decision to make.”