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Food Politics

Politics of the Plate: Fish, Baby, Fish!

A court decision overturns the Bush administration’s plans to allow offshore oil drilling in Bristol Bay, one of the world’s best-managed salmon fisheries.
bristol bay
For a while it looked like government had launched a two-pronged pincer attack to destroy the $2-billion-per-year sustainable salmon fishery in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

Last summer, a ballot measure to restrict the amount of arsenic and other toxic pollutants mines could dump into Alaska’s waterways was defeated after Governor Sarah Palin spoke out against it. The measure would have prevented the proposed Pebble Mine, a massive gold and copper operation, from being located in the Bristol Bay’s pristine headwaters.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the watershed, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) had opened 5.6 million acres of the bay’s floor to offshore oil and gas drilling. The MMS, an obscure branch of the federal government that collects royalties from the oil and gas industries, made headlines last summer when the Interior Department’s inspector general issued a scathing report alleging that officials there had used cocaine, cut themselves sweet financial deals, accepted gifts from energy companies they supposedly regulated, and engaged in sexual misconduct with employees from the same companies.

Perhaps those distractions explain how the bureaucrats overlooked a few pesky environmental issues. That omission came back to haunt them last week when a federal appellate court in Washington ruled that the Bush-era MMS failed to consider the effects on the environment and marine life before it began to expand the oil and gas leasing program in the Beaufort, Bering, and Chukchi Seas, including Bristol Bay. The decision effectively cancels the sale, which was set for 2011.

“This is a chance for the Obama administration to put protections that had long-existed for Bristol Bay’s waters back into place,” said Kelly Harrell of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

With the downstream threat derailed, it’s a good time for officials to turn their attention upstream and stop a mining project that could poison the lakes, creeks, and rivers that feed those waters.