Fisheries interests bristle over prospect of Bristol Bay drilling

By Margaret Bauman
Alaska Journal of Commerce, 4/8/07

Commercial fishermen concerned that offshore exploration might cause irreparable ecological damage say the relatively small amount of recoverable oil and gas is hardly worth the risk to Bristol Bay’s vast salmon fisheries.

Karen Gillis, executive director of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, points to data gathered by the federal Minerals Management Service that shows mid-point estimates for recoverable resources from the North Aleutian Basin are 0.75 billion barrels of oil and 8.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Based on figures from the federal Energy Information Association on U.S. consumption, that’s about one month’s supply of oil and nine months or so of gas, Gillis said March 22.

Gillis spoke on the eve of a trip to Washington, D.C., in late March, where she and representatives of the Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Marketing Association, the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, and the Curyung Tribal Council in Bristol Bay planned to meet with Alaska’s congressional delegation and others regarding oil and gas exploration in the bay. President George W. Bush in January lifted a long-standing executive ban on offshore drilling in the North Aleutian Basin, paving the way for MMS to offer leases in 2010 and 2012.

The entourage, in addition to Gillis, included David Harsila, president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Marketing Association and a longtime Bristol Bay fisherman;Terry Hoefferle, a board member of Alaska Marine Conservation Council and former chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Native Association; Mike Davis, a commercial fisherman, former state legislator and faculty member at the University of Alaska Bristol Bay campus; and Tom Tilden, chief of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham and former mayor of that city.

“Bristol Bay’s marine resources are simply too valuable – economically, ecologically and culturally – to put at risk,” said Gillis, whose organization represents 128 communities within the Arctic, Yukon, Kuskokwim and Bristol Bay regions of Alaska. Gillis’ group was instrumental in winning congressional protection for Bristol Bay in 1989. “We saw what the Exxon-Valdez oil spill did to marine life in Prince William Sound, and we’re determined to protect Bristol Bay from a similar disaster.”

The congressional moratorium for Bristol Bay was lifted in 2003.

Robin Cacy, spokeswoman for MMS, said that agency’s statistics show there is just a 5 percent chance for technical recovery of 23.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from that area, a 50 percent chance for recovery of 8.6 trillion cubic feet, and a 95 percent chance of recovery of 0.4 trillion cubic feet. For oil recovery, MMS statistics show a 95 percent chance for technical recovery of 0.1 billion barrels, a 50 percent change of 0.8 billion barrels, and a 5 percent chance of recovery of 2.5 billion barrels.

These figures are based strictly on technical ability, not economics, she said.
Gillis said that according to the Energy Information Association’s Web site, www.eia.doe.gov, current U.S. consumption is 20.8 million barrels a day of petroleum products, plus 21.9 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

“When we looked at the numbers closely, it was embarrassing that we were even going through this” discussion on offshore exploration in Bristol Bay; “that there is this much effort toward extracting that amount of resources,” she said. “I can’t imagine when people understand that’s all we are really expecting that people will think it’s really worth (the risk to commercial fisheries).”

Alaska’s Bristol Bay and the southeastern Bering Sea encompass one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world. The sub-arctic waters support important commercial fisheries, representing more than 40 percent of the nation’s annual seafood catch. The area targeted for oil and gas leasing overlaps with important habitat and fishing grounds for pollock, cod, red king crab, halibut and salmon – fisheries that generate more than $2 billion annually.

With interest in Bristol Bay wild salmon soaring, now is not the time to put the resource at risk, Davis said. “Instead, we should be investing in the sustained health of Bristol Bay fisheries to meet the growing market demand for wild seafood.”

Tom Tilden, chief of the Curyung Tribal Council, noted that salmon is key to the Native economies and lifestyle of the region. “Little benefit would come to our communities from offshore development, but the risks to the fish and wildlife resources that are the irreplaceable mainstay of Alaska Native tradition and culture are tremendous,” Tilden said.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at margie.bauman@alaskajournal.com

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