· Over half of the seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from
the Bering Sea.
· Native ways of life have been devastated by ecological
and climatic changes around the Bering.
· Illegal fishing and poaching accounts for over half of
the fish caught on the Russian side of the Bering.
· Though the Bering is one ecosystem, there is a lack of
cooperation between the two countries managing it.
· Global warming is wreaking havoc on the Bering Sea Ecosystem.
· Steller’s Sea Lions, once plentiful in the Bering
and North Pacific, have plummeted in population by 80% in the last
· The profits from Bering Sea fish go largely to huge fishing
companies, which have left many fishing communities destitute.
The Bering Sea is an 878,000 square
mile extension of the Pacific Ocean that lies between Russia and
Alaska. It is bordered to the South by the Aleutian Islands, and
the northern Bering Straight separates it from the Arctic Ocean.
It is the third largest sea in the world, and the combination of
its natural characteristics, such as shallow continental shelves
and seasonal ice, have created one of the richest fisheries in the
The Western part of the Bering, out to 200 miles from
shore, is Russian territory, and the Eastern part belongs to the
United States. The section between, which lies 200 miles out from
the coastlines of both countries, is known as “The Donut Hole,”
and is considered international waters, or a global commons. This
comprises 10% of the Bering Sea.
Issues faced in the Bering
Huge factory trawlers are overfishing some
species in the Bering, often illegally.
Over 50% of the fish consumed in the U.S. comes from
the Bering Sea. Russia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Poland, and
other countries also rely heavily on the Bering as a source of fish.
Wild salmon and halibut can often be found in gourmet restaurants.
Pollock are processed into the fish sticks that can be found in
your grocers’ freezer, and in the fish sandwiches available
at fast food restaurants.
In the name of efficiency, ever-larger fishing conglomerates
practice industrial fishing in the Bering. They use huge ships with
advanced radar systems to track schools of fish, then scoop them
up with huge nets, some as long as skyscrapers are tall. These massive
vessels are not only grabbing tons of fish at a single sweep, but
as the nets drag the bottom of the sea, they’re damaging sensitive,
underwater habitat that is critical to the survival of all Bering
Sea life. As a result of trawling, species such as crab and perch
are in serious decline in the entire Bering, while the stocks of
pollock fluctuate in an unpredictable manner from year to year.
The once-plentiful pollock have had especially dramatic declines
on the Western side of the Bering, as the amount of illegal fishing
has increased their catches by about 150% over the quotas set by
the Russian government. In the Eastern Bering, harvests of Snow
Crab have declined by 85% since 1999.
Agencies such as the U.S. National Marine Fisheries
Service and the Russian State Fisheries Committee set quotas for
the various types of fish caught in the Bering. These quotas are
based on assessments of available fish stocks, and if made correctly
and followed, would sustain the health of the sea. However, there
are problems with this on both sides of the Bering.
On the Eastern, or U.S. side, the quotas are set by
the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC). Unlike just
about every other U.S. government agency, the NPFMC has an exemption
from the usual rules restricting conflict of interest. As a result,
the NPFMC is made up of several representatives from large fishing
companies, the same ones who are trawling for the fish.
On the Western, or Russian side, corruption and poor
enforcement plague the fisheries. It is estimated that the fish
caught in Russian waters exceeds the quota by at least 150%. This
is because poaching is rampant, and the Russian Mafia is heavily
involved in the fish trade. The Russian Border Service is severely
under-funded, and the consequences for enforcing the law can sometimes
be violent. In the spring of 2002, a senior Russian border guard
responsible for battling poaching was killed in a firebomb attack
on his apartment, while violent altercations at sea between fishing
vessels and law enforcement have become commonplace. Important cooperative
efforts have been launched between the U.S. Coast Guard and the
Russian Border Service. It is time, however, for these efforts to
be improved upon, and to include other agencies and citizens.
Though the Bering is one eco-system, there
is a lack of international cooperation between the two countries
The Bering is shared by the United States and Russia,
while the “donut hole”, or international zone out of
U.S. and Russian waters, is considered a global commons. However,
the species and the waters that call the Bering home know no such
boundaries. While government agencies in the affected countries
often meet and make international agreements about the Bering, and
while scientists from all countries often have international meetings
of their own, there is very little real action on the ground that
involves all of the affected communities. Indeed, government officials
and citizens in both Russia and the United States often lack basic
information about stock status and enforcement efforts on the other
side of the Bering Sea – a necessary pre-requisite for responsible
management decisions. As a result, there is a disconnect between
the international agreements made between governments and scientists
and how these agreements are realized.
Climatic and Ecological changes are devastating
to traditional ways of life
The shores of the Bering have long been the traditional
homelands for many indigenous peoples. While these communities are
often marginalized in the policies that govern the Bering, they
are often the ones most impacted by those decisions. Because many
indigenous peoples depend on the Bering for their food, they are
dependent on the populations of fish and other wildlife. Increasingly,
that food is becoming scarcer and harder to access. Areas that used
to be iced over are now thinning, leading some indigenous peoples
to fall through the ice as they go on their hunts. Entire villages
that are now on thin ice are in danger of perishing if the ice becomes
too thin in the summer. A group of scientists who spent a year aboard
an icebreaker concluded that the year-round sea ice that sustains
marine mammals and those who hunt them could vanish altogether in
Toxic pollutants such as Mercury are found
in the people, fish, and animals that live around the Bering and
the Arctic, even though the region is far away from industry
To the naked eye, the Bering Sea appears to be a pristine
body of water. However, in recent years there has been an increase
of an insidious form of pollution known as Persistent Organic Pollutants,
or POPs. POPs are toxic compounds such as DDT, PCB’s and Dioxin
that have found their way into the Bering eco-system, even though
these chemicals are not used in the region. Scientists believe that
these chemicals travel long distances through the atmosphere from
Russia, North and South America, and Asia. There have been elevated
levels of these compounds found in fish, polar bears and Orcas.
Adult Inuit peoples who live in remote Arctic and Bering villages
have been found to have PCB concentrations seven times higher than
adult populations in the rest of North America.
Global Warming is wreaking havoc on the Bering
In the last few decades, global warming, spurred on
by world-wide fossil fuel emissions, has brought dramatic changes
to the Bering region. In the last 100 years, parts of the Arctic
have warmed by 10 degrees Fahrenheit, which is ten times the global
average. The changes in the Bering’s weather, and throughout
the northern regions, have been profound. In the last ten years,
climate records have been shattered, and local indigenous peoples
have reported events like electrical storms for the first time ever.
This has led to drastic changes in the water’s temperature.
In 1997 and 1998, there was such a precipitous change in water temperature
that large parts of the Bering became covered in algae blooms, an
unprecedented event. Many scientists believe that these changes
are a major reason for the dramatic decline in species in the Bering.
Marine Mammals and Seabird Populations are
The Bering Sea was once a haven for many species of
marine mammals and seabirds. However, in recent decades, many indicator
species of the Bering have experienced huge drops in populations.
Populations of Steller’s Sea Lions, for example, have plummeted
by as much as 80% since 1980 – leading to controversial legal
action in the United States to limit pollock harvest-- while fur
seals have declined by as much as 50%. Similar marine mammal declines
are increasing on the Western side of the Bering. There have also
been significant declines in seabirds such as the common and thick-billed
murre, and red- and black-legged kittiwakes.
The profits from Bering Sea fish go largely
to huge fishing companies, which have left many fishing communities
The U.S. side of the Bering Sea generated more than
$1 billion in revenue in 2000. However, many of the fishing communities
around the Bering have become economically depressed as the fishing
industry has moved from small, family fishermen to huge companies
that buy their fish from massive trawlers. Most of the large trawlers
ships that process at sea are owned by companies in Washington State,
while many of the Alaskan on-shore processing companies are foreign-owned.
Many of the jobs that are offered at these processors are given
to non-resident laborers, who work for 15% less on average than
Alaskans. This has led to a flow of people, many of them indigenous,
from the rural villages to urban areas, and the death of a way of