By Mark J. Spalding with Catharine Cooper
4,405 miles from Washington D.C. lies a rugged chain of exquisitely beautiful islands. Extending from the tip of the Alaskan peninsula, the Aleutian Islands are home to one of the richest and most biologically productive marine life ecosystems, and our largest populations of marine mammals, seabirds, fish and shellfish in the world. The 69 islands form an 1,100 mile arc toward the Kamchatka Peninsula, and separate the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean.
Here is the home of several endangered species, including the Steller sea lions, sea otters, short-tailed albatross, and the humpback whales. Here are the passes that provide critical travel corridors for most of the world’s gray whales and northern fur seals, which use the passes to access feeding and breeding grounds. Here is the home of some of the most diverse and dense aggregations of cold-water corals known in the world. Here is the ecosystem that has supported the subsistence needs of the coastal Alaska native people for millennia.
At first glance, this wilderness looks pristine, intact, unaffected by the ravages that affect more populated seaboards. But those who live, work, or research in the area, have witnessed staggering changes in the last 25 years.
One of most visible shifts in the marine ecosystem has been loss or near extinction of several species, including the Steller sea lion. These light blonde to reddish brown sea mammals were at one time visible on nearly every rocky outpost. But their numbers decreased 75% between 1976 and 1990, and decreased by another 40% between 1991 and 2000. Sea otter populations that numbered near 100,000 in 1980 have diminished to less than 6,000.
Also missing from the pristine picture of the Aleutian chain are the king crab and shrimp, the schools of silvery smelt, and the lush undersea kelp forests. Sharks, Pollock and urchins now dominate these waters. Called a “regime shift” by George Estes of the U.S. Geological Survey, the balance of prey and predator has been upended.
Although the region is remote and sparsely populated, shipping through the Aleutian Islands is increasing, and the natural resources of the region continue to be heavily exploited for commercial fisheries. Oil spills occur with frightening regularity, often go unreported, and oftentimes cause irreparable damage. The region remains difficult to access, and significant data gaps exist for ocean related research. The need to better understand the marine ecosystem is essential to properly manage and address future risks.
I first became involved with the Alaskan environmental community in 2000. As head of the Alaska Oceans Program, I became aware of problems then affecting the area, and designed several campaigns – such as limiting bottom trawling in the Bering Sea – for the Alaska Conservation Foundation. We worked to support ecosystem-based advocacy efforts to reform fisheries management, increase ocean literacy, fostered the creation of a Shipping Safety Partnership, and promoted international and nation efforts for sustainable seafood choices. We built the Alaska Oceans Network, which provides shared communications between conservation groups such as Oceana, Ocean Conservancy, Earthjustice, World Wildlife Fund, Alaska Marine Conservation Council, and Trustees for Alaska.
Today, as both a concerned citizen and CEO of The Ocean Foundation (TOF), I join in seeking the nomination of the Aleutian Islands National Marine Sanctuary (AINMS). Put forth by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and signed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Eyak Preservation Council, The Center for Water Advocacy, the North Gulf Oceanic Society, TOF, and Marine Endeavors, sanctuary status will offer additional levels of protection to the many threats facing the Aleutian waters. The sanctuary designation would encompass an offshore area of approximately 554,000 square nautical miles (nm2), which would constitute the nation’s largest marine protected area.
That the Aleutians are worthy of protection dates back to 1913, when President Taft, by Executive Order, established the “Aleutian Islands Reserve as Preserve for Native Birds, Animals and Fish.” In 1976, UNESCO designated The Aleutian Islands Biosphere Reserve, and the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) established the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the 1.3 million acre Aleutian Islands Wilderness.
Even with these designations, the Aleutians need further protection. The main threats to the proposed AINMS are overfishing, oil and gas development, invasive species, and increased shipping. The growing effects of climate change and ocean acidification further aggravate these four threats.
The National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) was enacted in 1972 to protect significant marine habitats and special ocean areas. Sanctuaries are managed for multiple purposes, provided the uses are deemed compatible with resource protection by the Secretary of Commerce, who determines through a public process what activities will be allowed and what regulations will be applied to various uses.
There are currently fourteen U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries; each one has its own specific guidelines and protection, each one unique to its habitat and environmental concerns. Along with protections, national marine sanctuaries provide economic value far beyond the water, supporting approximate 50,000 jobs in diverse activities ranging from fishing and diving to research and hospitality. Across all sanctuaries, about $4 billion is generated in local and costal economies.
The Aleutian Islands deserve the designation, both for their protection and the value that they will bring to the sanctuary family.