2 June 2006

Forum approves three statements at Third Annual Working Meeting. Click here to read about the meeting.

30 April 2005

Read the Public Summary from the Forum's Second Annual Working Meeting

29 July 2003

Press Advisory: Russian and U.S. Leaders Unite to Avert Collapse of Bering Sea Ecosystem

Marine experts from the U.S. and Russia are coming together to tackle the tough issues they say have been neglected by government agencies

(read complete press advisory)

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· 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 20 years.
· 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 world.

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 managing it

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 50 years.

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 ecosystem

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 Sharply Declining

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 destitute

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 life.