Obama Administration offers protection to marine mammals

Executive order withdraws 40,300 square miles of ocean from oil leasing

An executive order issued by President Obama has created the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area, offering protections to thousands of marine mammals, and withdrawing 40,300 square miles of ocean from federal petroleum leasing.

The designated area encompasses 112,300 square miles of a hugely productive, high-latitude ocean ecosystem, and supports one of the largest seasonal marine mammal migrations in the world, including thousands of bowhead and beluga whales, hundreds of thousands of walruses and ice seals, and millions of migratory birds, the White House said in an announcement on Dec. 9.

Last year Obama became the first sitting president to visit portions of the Alaska Arctic, and he has made clear in the executive order a requirement for a larger voice for Alaska Natives in protecting waters critical to their traditional lifestyle.

The area is home to more than 40 tribes of coastal Yup’ik and Inupiaq people whose lifestyles have been linked with the marine environment for thousands of years.

The Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area is delineated to focus on a locally tailored collection of protections related to oil and gas, shipping and fishing, the White House said.

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the president withdrew Norton Basin planning area and portions of the St. Matthew-Hall planning area from future oil and gas leasing to further protect the regional ecosystem and coastal communities. Since the five-year leasing plans issued by the Interior Department do not include plans for leasing in the withdrawn areas, there will be no need for changes in these plans to reflect the withdrawal, the White House said.


Given the importance of sea bottom habitat to the ecosystem in the Northern Bering Sea, and its support of an abundance of marine mammals and sea birds, including critical subsistence resources, bottom trawling is already banned in the region. The executive order makes it federal policy to support the continued prohibition on bottom trawling, which adversely impacts sensitive benthic ecosystems.

The order also advances the administration’s priorities to elevate traditional knowledge in decision-making and coordinating federal efforts in the Arctic.

The executive order establishes a Bering Task Force on the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area under the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, to coordinate federal activity and consider additional mechanisms to reduce impacts to subsistence and cultural activities within the resilience area.

The executive order formally elevates the voice of Alaskan Native tribes and the role of indigenous knowledge in decision-making within the region by mandating that the task force establish and engage in regular consultation with a Bering Intergovernmental Tribal Advisory Council. The Council will include tribal government representatives, with participation from federal, state and local officials.  Together they will guide the incorporation of traditional knowledge and science into federal resource management in the northern Bering Sea region, to preserve this unique ecosystem and the indigenous peoples who reply on it, the White House said.

In support of the U.S.-Canada commitment to a shared Arctic leadership model, the Obama Administration also announced some $30 million in philanthropic commitments for projects in rural northern Alaska and Canada.

These projects will include investments over the next three years related to shipping, ecosystem science, community and ecological resilience, and tribal engagement. These actions are supportive of the March 2016 U.S. –Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy and Arctic Leadership, and make substantial progress on its objectives of conserving Arctic biodiversity through science-based decision-making, and supporting strong Arctic communities.

The $30 million pledged for projects in rural northern Alaska and Canada is coming from the Arctic Funders Collaborative, a group of 11 U.S., Canadian and international philanthropic foundations. AFC announced that a subset of its members would coordinate and mobilize resources through grant programs across the Arctic, at a projected $27 million over the next three years in five areas.  These include community-led planning and monitoring initiatives that foster adaptation and resilience to charging Arctic climate, building in-region capacity of indigenous-led organizations and emerging leaders across the Arctic, and more.

Priority geographic areas for marine stewardship support include the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait, the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, the Northwest Passage, Lancaster Sound Baffin Bay, the Davis Strait, and Hudson Bay.

Meanwhile, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation announced a $3.7 million grant in support of research to bridge scientific and indigenous understanding of sea ice change in the Alaskan Arctic. The project will involve area experts who have sea ice experience and other environmental knowledge.