Alaska might be one of the last bastions of North American terrestrial wilderness, but the waters that wash up against its coasts are another story.
“On land, rapid declines in wilderness have led to urgent calls for its protection,” note the authors from universities and environmental organizations in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and four U.S. states.” In contrast, little is known about the extent and protection of marine wilderness. Here we systematically map marine wilderness…We discover that 13 percent of the ocean meets this definition of global wilderness, with most being located in the high seas.”
Alaska can, however, claim title to the only marine wilderness within the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or what most people simply call the 200 mile limit.
The study maps Norton Sound south of the Seward Peninsula and Kotzebue Sound north of the Peninsula as wilderness along with a smattering of areas in the Chukchi Sea off the state’s northwest coast.
“Most wilderness within exclusive economic zones is found across the Arctic (6.9 million square kilometers) or Pacific island nations (2.7 million square kilometers),” the study says. “This is most likely due to low human populations in these areas and, in some cases, sea ice preventing human access to the ocean. However, with sea ice rapidly disappearing in the Arctic, some wilderness loss has already occurred in previously ice-covered areas and this trend is likely to accelerate as sea ice continues to decline.”
Much of Alaska’s once wild Arctic Ocean has been disturbed by oil and gas development or oil field support services. Elsewhere, fishing and shipping have invaded what were once wild marine areas.
“Global wilderness extent varies considerably across the ocean, with substantial wilderness in the southern high seas and very little in the northern hemisphere,” the study says. “This difference is due to significant fishing and shipping activity occurring in the waters around northern Asia, Europe, and North America.”
The study – which included scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society, The Nature Conservancy and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas – makes an unabashed pitch for countries to expand the number and size of marine protected areas (MPAs).
“Proactive retention of marine wilderness should now be incorporated into global strategies aimed at conserving biodiversity and ensuring that large-scale ecological and evolutionary processes continue,” the authors argue.
When surviving wilderness areas were examined against disturbed areas, the scientists reported, that “on average, global wilderness areas have 31 percent higher species richness.” This sort of biodiversity is considered vital to maintaining evolutionary adaptability, but the scientists admit it is hard to sell the idea of maintaining wilderness beneath the waves.
“Marine wilderness is often overlooked, both in global conservation policy and in national conservation strategies, because these areas are assumed to be free from threatening processes and therefore not a priority for conservation efforts,” they write.
“International policies are often blind to the benefits that flow from intact, functioning ecosystems, and there is no text within the Convention on Biological Diversity or the United Nations World Heritage Convention that recognizes the importance of retaining large intact landscapes or seascapes, Similarly, national-level conservation plans tend to focus on securing under-pressure habitats or endangered populations, rather than multi-faceted strategies that also focus on wilderness protection.”
In short, it is easier to save the whales than to save the range the whales roam.
Given how little marine wilderness is left, the scientists argue nations need to start now to “focus on human activities that threaten wilderness. In the ocean, this includes preventing overfishing and destructive fishing practices, minimizing ocean-based mining that extensively alters habitats, and limiting runoff from land-based activities. Better enforcement of existing laws is also needed to prevent illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, which makes up 10 percent to 30 percent of global catch.”
More than half of the U.S. marine protected areas (MPAs) are in Alaska, although fishing and other activities are allowed in them. Proposals to expand MPAs in Alaska and further limit activities within them have run into strong opposition.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, in 2015 was credited with stopping a proposal to create a Aleutian Island National Marine Sanctuary, an idea put forward by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The Congressman for all Alaska “led the charge in stirring up local opposition and has introduced legislation barring designating any new marine sanctuaries in Alaska without Congressional approval” the PEER statement said. “In a recent press release, Rep. Young denounced ‘a cabal of environmental interest groups – led by PEER – for ‘unilaterally closing off vast areas of Alaska to critical economic activities like fishing, natural resource development and marine commerce.'”
PEER argued Young overstated its proposal, saying the sanctuary “nomination safeguarded Alaska Native marine subsistence and small-boat fisheries but would curb industrial scale fishing while banning oil and gas development. In addition, the treacherous waters of Aleutian passes result in many sinkings, groundings and spills yet have no established traffic lanes, speed limits, weather or ice transit restrictions and little ability to even track vessels.”
Young, in an official statement, said he was only carrying out the wishes of his constituents.
“As I said before, these types of proposals must come from the ground up and include support from our local communities, marine industries, and fishermen – both commercial and recreational,” the statement said. “I commend the dedicated work of local governments and communities across the region, who all shared their profound opposition to the December nomination of the Aleutian Islands National Marine Sanctuary. While PEER believes it was our work alone that led to this nomination’s dismissal, I think they should also look to the complete absurdity of their proposal. I would encourage them to take a hard look at their unwarranted plans to harass the Alaskan people before moving forward again.”
The dust-up well illustrates the difficultly in protecting marine wilderness.