Stakeholders talk energy and fishing in North Aleutian Basin

Long-term initiative aimed at improving understanding, identifying impacts of oil and gas development

11/05/2007

Contact: Brian Allee, Ph.D., Director, NOAA Alaska Sea Grant, University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, 907-474-7949, cell 907-978-5945, allee@sfos.uaf.edu.

NR: SG-2007/NR263

Anchorage, Alaska—Federal plans to lease a large chunk of the southeast Bering Sea and part of Bristol Bay for offshore oil and gas exploration won't occur at least until 2011.

Yet interested energy companies, fishermen, Alaska Natives, community leaders, environmentalists and others met last month to begin a dialogue on energy development in the region.

“There's a lot that we in the oil industry simply do not know about the fishing industry,” said Marilyn Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. “As well, there is a lot that people outside our industry do not know about the oil and gas industry. This forum provides an opportunity for all of us to better understand each other and build a trust that we all need.”

At stake for the region's fishermen are the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, and the lucrative pollock, cod, halibut and crab fisheries in the Bering Sea, worth more than $2 billion each year. But also on the table is the potential revenue oil and gas development might bring. If developed, North Aleutian Basin oil and gas could be worth $3 to $6 billion per year for the next 25 to 40 years, according to the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

The October 19 meeting at the Anchorage Hilton was organized by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Norway's Bodø University. Bodø held a similar meeting earlier this year between fisheries stakeholders and energy firms developing oil and gas off the coast of central Norway.

During the daylong session at the Anchorage Hilton, a 23-member steering committee of fishermen, Alaska Natives, environmentalists, community leaders, federal agency officials and energy representatives met to begin framing the agenda for a larger March 2008 public meeting aimed at creating meaningful dialogue between the region's fisheries and energy developers.

“We brought these people and groups together to begin a process to help all of us understand the concerns that are out there and to get to know one another better, said Brian Allee, director of the Alaska Sea Grant Program at UAF's School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. “But just as important is the need to figure out what we all need to know about the potential impacts of oil and gas development on the region's commercial fisheries and the region's coastal communities.”

Steering committee members said long-term dialogue should focus on finding ways to protect the environment and preserve access to fishing grounds, regional infrastructure development, and social changes that are likely to occur in coastal communities.

While all steering committee members were quick to embrace the need for dialogue, Bubba Cook of the World Wildlife Fund said his group would remain opposed to any offshore oil and gas development in the region.

“As an ecological engine for an annual multibillion dollar fishery, it simply doesn't make sense to jeopardize the prolific renewable, sustainable, and profitable resource that could last in perpetuity for the short-term benefits of oil and gas activity,” Cook said. “So far there have been no conclusive studies conducted that affirmatively prove there will be no net impact to fisheries in the region. There are only assertions, poorly connected assumptions, and limited data.”

Community leaders welcomed the opportunity to take part in a forum that offers the chance for long-term dialogue, but also offered cautious support for oil and gas development in the region.

Most, like Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack, echoed environmental concerns and the need to preserve the rural coastal community lifestyle as key to their support for energy development. They also said they see the need for jobs and economic stability in rural coastal communities wracked by a net loss in population as younger residents move away in search of better lives.

“Protecting our environment, fisheries, and way of life are critical for our region,” said Stanley Mack, mayor of the Aleutians East Borough. “We have seen a lot of outmigration because of the lack of jobs. I see my role as providing jobs and economic stability, making sure our communities survive and that our schools stay open. We are not ones to close the door on economic opportunities, but we want to protect what we already have.”

Shirley Marquardt, mayor of Unalaska, said that among her major concerns are managing the many social and economic changes that may inevitably come. She said a forum such as this could be instrumental in understanding and planning for those changes.

“We are cautiously supportive that energy development can occur with minimal risk to fisheries,” said Marquardt. “In Unalaska, it is important for us to diversify revenue and manage issues associated with our labor force, dock space and air transportation. The communities in the region must start planning for needed infrastructure. Initiating this dialogue now will help us make informed decisions in a timely manner.”

Joe Childers, president of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said the steering committee and ongoing dialogue must discuss ways to mitigate impacts “to ensure open fishing and the potential for oil and gas.”

Eric Olson, chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, said he looks forward to discussions about oil spills and spill responses and any other potential impacts on the region.

Gregg Nady, Alaska land manager for oil and gas giant Shell, said he viewed the meeting as the first in a series of forums to improve understanding, share experiences, and determine critical questions and needs as early in the process as possible.

The federal Minerals Management Service estimates there are some nine trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 750 million barrels of oil in the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area, a 5.6-million-acre region that encompasses most of the southeastern Bering Sea continental shelf and all of Bristol Bay. MMS plans to sell leases in part of the planning area in 2011.

The North Aleutian Basin Energy and Fisheries Workshop is a public meeting scheduled for March 18-19, 2008, in Anchorage, Alaska.