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Alaska weighs in on new federal oceans policy

August 21, 2009 | 10:50 pm


With the world's oceans facing mounting threats from pollution, climate change and overfishing, the Obama administration held the first of several public hearings intended to help it draft a coordinated policy for managing the health of the seas.

During their stop in Alaska, members of the White House's Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force said they expected to have a list of priorities for improving ocean stewardship in place by mid-September. By December, officials said, they planned to set out a broad strategy for sustainably allocating natural resources among interests such as fishing, oil and gas development, shipping, wind and tidal energy, boating and wildlife preservation.

“In every ... ocean around the world, over-exploitation has led to widespread depletion and disruption, often despite good intentions,” said Jane Lubchenko, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the task force.

“This is not to say we can't use the ocean,” she said. “We need to be able to use it. Just not use it up.”

The Arctic Ocean faces the twin pressures of melting sea ice and increased industrial development, officials said, but still is pristine enough to protect if controls are put in place soon enough.

Alaska's continental shelf holds a third of all U.S. coastal oil reserves, and a fourth of the available gas. The state's coastal waters account for $5.8 billion worth of seafood a year, 60% of America's total catch. This is also the nation's last great wilderness, the refuge of animals including grizzly bears, polar bears, wolves, salmon and birds that are struggling or nonexistent elsewhere in the U.S.

Some of the state's normally robust salmon stocks have experienced a significant and unexplained decline over the last year. Some have attributed it to massive industrial fishing in the Bering Sea, which often nets significant quantities of salmon as byproduct when targeting more abundant fish.

The U.S. has the largest ocean area of any country, but it is managed by more than 20 different agencies administering 140 different laws.

“Each agency has statutory responsibility over pieces that will become ocean policy. So the first step is to try to set an overall framework,” said task force chairwoman Nancy Sutley of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “We need to look at how the federal government organizes itself in dealing with ocean marine resources and then attempt to set some priorities.”

--Kim Murphy

Photo: The Alaska Fisheries Science Center has conducted scientific surveys near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Credit: Jen Nomura / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration