Biden signs ‘milestone’ order on Bering Sea protections, Indigenous knowledge

A man's white hands sign a bill
Then-Sen. Joe Biden signed ballot paperwork in Wilmington, Del. August 14, 2020. (Biden For President)

President Joe Biden signed several climate-related executive orders on his first day in office, including some that affect residents of the Bering Sea.

One order reinstates the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area, an Obama-era protection from off-shore oil and gas leasing in the Norton Sound and the waters around St. Lawrence Island.

The original order was revoked in the early months of President Donald Trump’s presidency.

The reinstated order outlines policies on marine shipping, pollution, marine debris, and oil spills, among other Arctic marine issues. The entire “resilience area” stretches over 112,300 square miles from the Kuskokwim Bay to the southern border of the Chukchi Sea.

For groups in Western Alaska, one of the order’s most significant features is its acknowledgement of the importance of local Indigenous knowledge. The federal task force responsible for the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area would include an intergovernmental Tribal advisory council. The council has not yet been formed but will include between nine and 11 elected representatives from Tribal governments.

Bering Sea Elders Group Executive Director Melissa Johnson called it a “milestone” for incorporating Indigenous people into federal conversations and policy on climate change.

“That council focuses on the matters that affect us as Indigenous people who live along the Bering Sea coast, who rely on the Bering Sea coast, and who pass that knowledge on to future generations,” Johnson explained.

Johnson and others have emphasized anything addressing climate change and activity in the Bering Sea should include local Tribes.

In 2016, the Bering Sea Elders Group and a delegation representing over 100 Tribes petitioned the Obama administration for additional marine protections. One of their primary concerns was that increased Arctic shipping could impact marine mammal migrations and subsistence hunting. In a joint press release at the time, the Bering Sea Elders Group said the order “elevates” Tribal roles in Bering Sea management and “provides a pathway for our Tribes to exercise self-determination.”

NBSCRA Executive Order Map
Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area. (Bering Sea Elders)

“A lot of Arctic policy is being proposed, decided upon, even written by people who are not from this region,” said Austin Ahmasuk, marine advocate for Kawerak, Bering Strait’s regional nonprofit corporation.

Ahmasuk said the new order was “welcome” after years of Arctic policy that hasn’t adequately included the people most affected.

“We’re glad that it’s prohibited oil and gas leasing in those planning basins. We are, of course, glad about the prohibition of bottom trawling into the northern Bering Sea. And then we look very much forward to how communities will be involved as advisors in northern Bering Sea management.”

The original 2016 executive order drew sharp criticism from the Alaska congressional delegation. Senator Dan Sullivan called it a “unilateral plan to harm Alaskans.” The delegation has not yet issued a statement or responded to requests for comment on Biden’s decision to re-instate the 2016 executive order.

The Dunleavy Administration would not comment specifically on the reinstatement of the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.

In a statement from the Alaska Department of Law, Assistant Attorney General Maria Bahr wrote that the impacts of Biden’s executive orders are still being reviewed for their impacts on state agencies.

She wrote, “These are complicated and evolving issues and will take some time to fully analyze.”

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