Biting The Hand That Feeds Us: The folly of Bristol Bay oil drilling

By DAVID JENKINS, REP Government Affairs Director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This article first appeared in the C.E.P (Conservative Environmental Policy) Quarterly, spring 2007, Vol. 3, #1


The clean, cold waters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay are the source of 40 percent of our nation’s annual seafood catch. Yes you read correctly. Bristol Bay accounts for 40 percent of all seafood caught in the United States. The economic value of the Bay’s fishery is more than $2.4 billion annually, and that figure does not factor in retail sales. The local fishing industry that Bristol Bay supports is Alaska’s top private sector employer.

Bristol Bay is the heart of this nation’s seafood industry. Its waters produce an abundance of King Crab, halibut, cod, herring, pollock and salmon — including the world’s largest wild run of Sockeye Salmon. As an economic engine and a vital natural resource, Bristol Bay is a national treasure deserving of our most diligent stewardship.

Unfortunately, in a move that should stun and outrage commercial fisherman, restaurateurs, chefs, fish retailers and seafood lovers everywhere, the Bush Administration recently lifted the presidential order prohibiting oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay and has drafted a plan to allow 200 oil wells and 150 miles of offshore pipeline in the bay. The plan would also result in daily oil tanker traffic through the treacherous waters of Bristol Bay or the Gulf of Alaska.

This proposed oil and gas production in Bristol Bay brings with it the real prospect of a large oil spill that would devastate the fishery. A lackluster oil industry record on spill prevention combined with some of the world’s roughest seas is a risky combination. The Department of Interior estimates that oil production in Bristol Bay would result in at least one major spill and numerous smaller spills.

Simple math clearly shows that the economic benefits of oil production pale in comparison to those of the current commercial fishery. The federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) estimates the total value of recoverable oil and gas from offshore development would be 7.7 billion dollars over the entire 25–40 year lifespan of the project. During the same time span the fishery value can conservatively be placed in the 60-100 billion dollar range.

Bristol Bay and the rivers, streams and lakes that flow into it also comprise one of the world’s most sought after sport fishing destinations. Its sport fishing industry annually generates $50-$60 million in revenues.

Edmund Burke, the English statesman regarded as the father of modern conservatism, considered prudence “the first in rank” of all virtues. For any true conservative who agrees with Burke, the proposal to drill for oil in Bristol Bay does not pass the smell test.



In light of recent fiascos on Alaska’s North Slope, which include corrosion-related pipeline leaks and a host of other mishaps, it is difficult to understand how anyone can argue with a straight face that oil development in Bristol Bay can be done without risk to the area’s bountiful fishery. The problems at Prudhoe Bay revealed a troubling history of shoddy maintenance and risky cost cutting measures that left even the oil industry’s most ardent advocates scratching their heads.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said,

“We have said the operations on Alaska’s North Slope are the gold standard. That’s what we believed; that’s what we want to continue to believe. But that faith has been shattered by what we’re seeing up north now.”

The state of Alaska’s oversight of the oil industry has also been shown lacking and last year the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation was accused of misleading Congress related to the North Slope Spills. In May of this year, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin acknowledged that the state was still trying to convince the rest of the country that it can be trusted to responsibly oversee the development of oil and gas.

The Congressional moratorium and presidential protections that have protected Bristol Bay since 1989 were a direct response to the 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. The affects of that spill are still being felt today where 85 tons of remaining oil continue to foul beaches and harm marine life.

Two large tanker spills last year, one in the Indian Ocean and one off the coast of the Philippines, serve as a reminder that almost 20 years after the Exxon Valdez incident catastrophic tanker spills can and do still occur.

Even when oil drilling goes as planned it can have profound impacts on the fishing industry. Offshore drilling operations discharge large amounts of toxic wastes that contain mercury, benzene, arsenic, lead and Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). In the Gulf of Mexico, elevated mercury levels have been found in fish caught near oil drilling operations and studies have shown that drilling discharges have caused widespread and long-term effects on planktonic organisms — which in Bristol Bay are key food sources for salmon, other types of fish, whales and seals.

At a time when Alaskan “wild caught” seafood is being very successfully marketed for its purity and health benefits, news about fish exposure to toxic waste from oil drilling activities and the discovery of contaminated fish can quickly damage that reputation and erode the market for Alaskan salmon and other seafood specialties.



Bristol Bay fishermen who oppose the planned oil development know firsthand how treacherous these waters are. The popular Discovery Channel series The Deadliest Catch is filmed here in what are considered among the roughest seas in the world.

This Bering Sea environment, characterized by strong tides and currents, powerful waves, violent storms and sea ice, greatly increases the likelihood of a major oil spill. The Bering Sea and neighboring Gulf of Alaska to the south have an infamous history of claiming ships and fishing vessels.

In 2004, not far from Bristol Bay, the freighter Selendang Ayu ran aground and split in two on Unimak Island. Despite the best efforts of the Coast Guard and others, most of the ship’s fuel — more than 300,000 gallons — poured into the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge resulting in the largest U.S. spill since the Exxon Valdez. The spill killed thousands of sea birds and resulted in the long-term closure of a local crab fishery. Had this vessel been a loaded oil tanker the region would have been totally devastated.

In March of this year a 443-foot Spanish-flagged ship lost power and came within three tenths of a mile of being smashed onto Hog Island.

Despite oil industry claims about the ability of its infrastructure to weather storm tossed seas, the damage in the Gulf of Mexico resulting from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita included 146 oil spills — with 37 spills of 50 barrels or greater, 457 damaged pipelines and 115 destroyed drilling platforms.

In addition to its stormy weather, the Bristol Bay area is one of the most seismically and volcanically active regions in the world. This dynamic geology poses a unique threat to oil and gas infrastructure, including underwater and above ground pipelines.

The extreme nature of Bristol Bay’s environment not only increases the likelihood of oil spills, it makes the clean-up of those spills virtually impossible.



The natural wealth of Bristol Bay goes far beyond the economic value of its commercial fishery. It is one of the most productive and unique marine ecosystems on the planet.

Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest wild run of sockeye salmon and to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of seabird colonies. Bristol Bay also provides essential habitat for dozens of marine mammal species, including Pacific walrus, sea otter, Steller sea lion and a variety of whale species. These waters provide the only known summer feeding habitat for the Pacific right whale, the world’s most endangered whale with an estimated population of less than 100.

Hundreds of native Alaskan communities rely on the marine resources of Bristol Bay for their subsistence. The harvest of fish and other wildlife is vital to the livelihood of residents and to the maintenance of their cultural traditions.

The shoreline surrounding Bristol Bay includes many areas that have been protected for their outstanding wildlife habitat, scenery and recreational opportunities. These include National Wildlife Refuges, state managed Critical Habitat Areas and Game Refuges, and Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary.

All of these protected shoreline areas would be placed in jeopardy by oil development. One large oil spill could foul the entire Bristol Bay shoreline. One of the MMS proposed transportation routes for getting oil and gas to the market calls for a pipeline through the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge.

The salmon from Bristol Bay also sustains diverse inland wildlife populations that exist along the thousands of miles of rivers and streams that feed into the Bay — including the famous brown bears that are filmed and photographed at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park.



On one hand we have a bountiful natural resource with a world class fishery valued at well over well over $2 billion each year. Bristol Bay sustains this nation’s commercial fishing industry, and the seafood harvested from its waters enriches the life of practically every American.
On the other hand we have a modest prospect for new oil and gas production that is uncertain and fraught with risks that can imperil the region’s natural wealth and associated economic activity.

For conservative guidance on the question of oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay one need only turn back to the insight Burke offered 250 years ago:

“The great Error of our Nature is, not to know where to stop, not to be satisfied with any reasonable Acquirement; not to compound with our Condition; but to lose all we have gained by an insatiable Pursuit after more.”

For any true conservative the choice is clear. Bristol Bay is a testament to the magnificence of creation and a divine gift that keeps on giving. It is our obligation to exercise good stewardship and ensure that the natural abundance of this special place is never lost.