Last June, President Obama committed to designating new Marine National Monuments in U.S. waters, saying: "I'm going to use my authority to protect some of our nation's most precious marine landscapes." This is a long-overdue and historic commitment.
In September, the president began to make good on his promise. Using executive authority under the Antiquities Act, he expanded the tropical Pacific Remote Marine National Monument previously established by George W. Bush, making it the largest marine protected area (MPA) in U.S. waters.
This is a good start, and the president now needs to turn his attention to protecting other important, but perhaps more challenging, ocean areas.
In considering what other marine areas to protect in his final two years in office, federal waters off Alaska should clearly rank at the top of the president's list.
By any measure, Alaska's offshore ecosystems are a "crown-jewel" of our nation's maritime assets and deserve permanent protection. Alaska's seas and coasts are globally unique for their diversity, expanse, abundance of fish and wildlife, as well as their historical, cultural and economic importance.
Half of the nation's entire shoreline and three-fourths of our total continental shelf are in Alaska. Alaska's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is more than twice the size of the state's land area, and this vast ocean area hosts the most abundant populations of fish, shellfish, seabirds and marine mammals in the nation, and some of the largest in the world. These waters also support thousands of jobs and a multibillion-dollar maritime economy, including seafood landings larger than those of all other states combined, a growing marine recreation and tourism industry, and subsistence needs of coastal residents.
But although more than half of Alaska's lands receive permanent federal protection, virtually none of Alaska's federal waters receive comparable protective status. Aside from inside waters within Glacier Bay National Park, to date there are no permanently protected federal waters (e.g. National Marine Sanctuary or Marine National Monument) in Alaska.
And while Alaska waters remain the most ecologically productive in the nation, there are growing threats and troubling signs of decline.
Most of Alaska's threatened & endangered species are marine animals, and many seabird and marine mammal populations throughout Alaska are in decline - the result, many scientists suspect, of excessive commercial harvests of certain fish and marine mammal populations, in combination with long-term changes in the ocean environment.
Climate change is reducing sea-ice cover and causing unprecedented marine ecosystem impacts, including ocean acidification. Persistent organic pollutants are found in Alaska's marine mammals, and the ecological injury from just one grounded oil tanker (Exxon Valdez) persists 25 years later.
Increased ship traffic from oil tankers, freight vessels, and cruise ships produces underwater noise, oil spills, whale-ship strikes, and invasive species. Alaska's Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) is one of the last remaining large offshore hydrocarbon prospects in the nation, and is the target of both current and future leasing plans. And the state's existing MPAs offer few meaningful safeguards against these rising threats, as they are mostly limited to inshore waters, provide minimal protections, and are often temporary.
For decades, some of us have advocated expanding permanent protections in Alaska federal waters, but none have been established mainly due to Washington's political timidity. Most recently, our 2009 proposal to protect the Aleutians and Bering Strait was dismissed by the administration. But now in his last years in office, President Obama may be open to correcting the years of neglect for Alaska's marine protection needs.
Three principal areas in Alaska waters that should be designated as Marine National Monuments are the Aleutian Islands, Bering Strait, and the Arctic Coast.
Aleutian Islands: A coalition of marine science and conservation organizations recently proposed designation of a 540,000 square mile Aleutian Islands National Marine Sanctuary, charting a path toward marine monument designation. The designation would protect federal waters along the Aleutians, extensive seabird and marine mammal habitat, unique cold-water coral communities, and critical habitat for a number of endangered marine mammal species, including the critically endangered North Pacific Right Whale.
The Aleutian monument would permanently enshrine in regulation existing species and habitat protections, further restrict trawling in the western Aleutians, eliminate the seven OCS planning areas in the region from future leasing, and implement additional safeguards for the 4,000 - 8,000 merchant ships each year transiting the region between North America and Asia. Although the president recently extended the withdrawal of the Bristol Bay/North Aleutian Basin OCS planning area, congress or a future administration could reverse the withdrawal, and open the area again to offshore drilling. A monument designation would permanently preclude such.
Bering Strait: The Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska is where, during the last ice-age, the Bering Land Bridge allowed terrestrial wildlife and early peoples to migrate from Asia into North America. Today, Bering Strait is one of the most important marine ecological gateways in the world ocean, through which hundreds of thousands of marine mammals, fish, and seabirds pass seasonally between the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. Although most lands on each side of the Strait are already in protected status, marine waters are not. Marine monument designation would permanently eliminate the two OCS oil and gas planning areas in the region, prohibit trawl fisheries, and provide greater safeguards for Arctic ship traffic (most of it foreign flagged) transiting the strait. And, the administration should negotiate with our Russian neighbors the establishment of similar marine protections on the Russian side of the Strait.
Arctic Coast: The arctic coast is currently exposed to multiple threats, including climate change, sea ice loss, shipping, oil spills, and offshore oil and gas development. To minimize these risks, marine monument designation would prohibit offshore oil development and transit shipping out to at least 25 miles offshore.
And all three of the new Alaska Marine National Monuments should be nominated by the administration as Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSAs) at the UN International Maritime Organization, to better regulate international shipping.
High Arctic: In addition to designating the above three areas in US waters as marine monuments, the administration should negotiate the establishment by the United Nations of a High Arctic Marine Sanctuary in international waters surrounding the North Pole. Many NGOs and the European Parliament endorse this proposal. The High Arctic Marine Sanctuary should be managed much as the Antarctic Treaty nations manage the Antarctic, to permanently prohibit oil, gas, and mineral development; commercial fisheries; and military activities.
Not surprisingly, there is already opposition by congressional republicans to such executive ocean protection action. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski recently introduced the "Improved National Monument Designation Act" (S.2608) seeking to "block the Obama administration from unilaterally using the Antiquities Act to lock up millions of acres of public lands and waters." Congressional republicans did not similarly object to former president Bush's monument designations.
And while political and business interests in Alaska are likely to oppose such new federal marine protections, it is important to note that federal waters off Alaska are co-owned an co-managed by all Americans, and all Americans have a say in their management. We will need the help of people across the nation to make this happen, and people can help by contacting the White House and their congressional delegations to demand prompt establishment of these permanent federal ocean protections.
This long overdue, historic opportunity to protect Alaska's offshore ecosystems is here, but time is short. President Obama needs to be bold, and walk-his-talk on ocean protection by establishing the Aleutian Islands, Bering Strait, and Arctic Coast Marine National Monuments in Alaska, and negotiating establishment of the High Arctic Marine Sanctuary in international waters around the North Pole. This would leave a profound, lasting ocean conservation legacy for future generations.