President Obama has used his presidential authority to indefinitely prohibit oil and gas leasing, development or production in Bristol Bay, home of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon run.
“This has been a long time coming, and Bristol Bay fishermen are breathing a collective sigh of relief,” said David Harsila, president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Marketing Association.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Obama’s decision of Dec. 16 “caps decades of work from the community to protect the region’s economic and cultural heritage.”
Jewell paid tribute to the late Harvey Samuelsen, a veteran commercial fisherman and spokesman for the people of Southwest Alaska, who championed protection of the bay and its fisheries, and the economic well being of fishermen, Native communities and other Alaskans.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said Jewell had called him in advance of the announcement to give him the news. “I look forward to working cooperatively – in Alaska’s clear interest – with the federal government to safely and economically develop regions of our state and offshore waters for oil and gas,” he said. “Bristol Bay, however, is not that place.”
Samuelsen’s son, Robin Samuelsen, chairman of the Bristol Bay economic Development Corp. in Dillingham, said he was “overjoyed that the President recognized how important Bristol Bay is,” not only to area residents but to the rest of the world. “My father worked his whole life to protect our fisheries and create opportunity for the people,” he said.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, also applauded the action, and paid tribute to Harvey Samuelsen, saying no Alaskan has been a more fierce supporter of Bristol Bay. “It’s appropriate to honor his legacy and contributions to Alaskans today and in the future by naming this reserve in his honor,” he said.
Begich noted that the federal government estimated the net economic value of Bristol Bay’s oil and gas resources at about $7.7 billion over the life of that development. By contrast, fisheries production there is valued in excess of $2 billion annually, or up to $80 billion over the same period that oil and gas development is projected, he said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said that given the lack of interest by industry and the public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration in this area, she was not objecting to the decision at this time. “What I do not understand is why this decision could not be made within the context of the administration’s upcoming plan for offshore leasing – or at least announced at the same time,” she said.