‘Fragile and unraveling’ ecosystems need protection
FRISCO — With President Barack Obama highlighting climate change during a visit to Alaska, conservation activists are renewing their call for the designation of Marine National Monuments in Alaskan waters.
Far from being a frigid wasteland, the region’s ocean and coastal ecosystems are among the most productive in the world. But marine mammal, seabird, and fish populations are in decline, including some that have become threatened or endangered species. And threats from climate change overfishing, pollution, increased shipping, and offshore oil drilling. are growing.
Already, more than 100,000 people have signed a petition in support Marine National Monuments, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility pointed out in a press release. While more than half of Alaska’s lands enjoy permanent federal protection, none of Alaska’s federal offshore waters have such protection, the group explained. Half of the nation’s entire shoreline and three-fourths of its total continental shelf are in Alaska.
“Designating marine monuments would be the only viable means for permanently shielding Alaska’s offshore waters, whales, polar bears, walruses, seals, sea lions, sea otters, seabirds, fish, cold-water corals, and coastal communities from the cascading effects of climate change combined with marine ecological degradation,” said Richard Steiner, a member of the PEER Board of Directors and a retired University of Alaska professor of marine conservation.
“President Obama cannot leave office with a complete environmental legacy without addressing Alaska’s fragile and unraveling offshore ecosystems,” Steiner said.
President Obama is attending a two-day summit of the Arctic Council along with 400 representatives from Arctic nations to discuss climate and adaptation issues. Rapid ecological changes in the Arctic, such as loss of sea ice, growing acidity and salinity are imperiling an area that serves as the planet’s marine breadbasket. This spring, the U.S. began its two-year stint chairing the 8-nation Arctic Council.
Steiner and PEER have criticized current piecemeal marine management as insufficient to arrest what may result in spiraling declines in marine diversity and productivity. They are urging the creation of three Marine National Monuments in the Aleutians, Bering Strait and Arctic Ocean.
Monument status would permanently prohibit offshore drilling, restrict trawl fishing, safely manage shipping, reduce marine debris and oil spills, enhance marine science, and ensure the recovery and sustainability of these national marine ecosystems while safeguarding salmon fisheries and marine subsistence in those designated areas.
Conservation groups have also formally nominated an Aleutian Islands National Marine Sanctuary to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but NOAA declined to move forward with that nomination citing local political opposition.
“Thus far, the major Obama initiative affecting Alaskan waters has been to open the Chukchi Sea to drilling for oil and gas – which only aggravates the effects of climate change and contributes to the ecological stress straining the Arctic,” said Peer director Jeff Ruch. “It remains to be seen whether the Obama tenure will be a net positive or negative for the Alaskan Outer Continental Shelf.”