Bristol Bay

Togiak National Wildlife Refuge juts into northern Bristol Bay. (Photo: Michael Smith/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Bristol Bay, an Alaskan utopia for salmon and other subarctic wildlife, is now protected from oil and gas drilling indefinitely. President Obama signed a memorandum Tuesday that withdraws the bay from any future offshore drilling, citing both its ecological and economic importance to the entire country.

"Bristol Bay has supported Native Americans in the Alaska region for centuries," Obama says in a new video announcing the decision. "It supports about $2 billion in the commercial fishing industry. It supplies America with 40 percent of its wild-caught seafood. It is a beautiful natural wonder, and it's something that's too precious for us to just be putting out to the highest bidder."

President George W. Bush had slated a lease sale for 2011 that would have opened about 5.6 million acres of Bristol Bay for drilling, but Obama temporarily withdrew the area from consideration in 2010. His latest move indefinitely extends those protections, which otherwise would have expired in 2017. Unlike more northerly waters in Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort seas, oil and gas companies aren't currently angling to drill in Bristol Bay, but this protection should ensure that doesn't change in the future.

Here are a few reasons why Alaskans and conservationists nationwide have spent decades fighting to protect the 33 million-acre Bristol Bay — and why their work may not be finished.

Upper Talarik Creek, Alaska

Upper Talarik Creek is part of a vast watershed that flows into Bristol Bay. (Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

1. It's a bountiful salmon habitat.

Bristol Bay, fed by eight major river systems, is home to the largest wild sockeye salmon run on the planet. An average of 38 million sockeye have returned to Bristol Bay annually for the past 20 years, according to the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. If lined up nose-to-tail, that many salmon would stretch from Bristol Bay to Australia and back. The 2015 sockeye run is expected to reach 54 million salmon, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which would be the largest run in 20 years. The bay also hosts strong runs of pink, chum, coho and king salmon.

Bristol Bay salmon fishing

Commercial salmon boats like these help fuel the region's $2 billion fishing industry. (Photo: Emma Forsberg/Flickr)

2. It's a major U.S. fishery.

An impressive 40 percent of the country's wild-caught commercial seafood comes from this one bay in the eastern Bering Sea. And while U.S. officials have estimated Bristol Bay holds $7.7 billion worth of oil and gas deposits, its commercial fishing industry already makes about $2 billion every year. That's roughly $80 billion over the life span of the fossil fuel reserves, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich recently told the Los Angeles Times, dulling the luster of offshore drilling in Bristol Bay for many Alaskans.

North Pacific right whale

Endangered right whales regularly visit Bristol Bay in summer. (Photo: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

3. It's a haven for wildlife.

In addition to its salmon surplus, Bristol Bay is teeming with a wide range of wildlife, including some species at risk of extinction. The endangered North Pacific right whale frequents the area, for example, potentially raising the stakes of oil spills and increased shipping traffic. The bay is also home to the Steller's eider, a threatened sea duck, as well as sea otters, seals, walrsus, belugas and orcas. The local abundance of salmon helps support land-based predators, too, from bald eagles to grizzly bears.

sockeye salmon

The region's sockeye salmon are a popular target for both commercial and recreational fishing. (Photo: Shutterstock)

4. It's a tourist magnet.

Despite its remote location, Bristol Bay provides the "economic engine" for a lucrative local tourism industry, Obama noted in this week's announcement. Tourism generates about $100 million per year around the bay, including camping, hiking, kayaking, wildlife watching and especially recreational fishing. The bay's sprawling watershed is most famous for its salmon, but it also supports prized populations of Arctic char, Arctic grayling, rainbow trout, lake trout, Dolly Varden, northern pike and whitefish.

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Bristol Bay has enjoyed various temporary protections over the past several decades, but nothing as durable as the newly announced withdrawal from leasing. And while the move has drawn some criticism from the oil and gas industry, it has sparked little controversy compared with debates over drilling access in other parts of Alaska. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has said she doesn't object to it, citing "the lack of interest by industry and the public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration in this area."

That doesn't mean Bristol Bay is out of the woods yet, however. It may not have oil and gas companies salivating, but it is the site of a proposed gold, copper and molybdenum mine that has raised widespread fears about the effect on local wildlife, especially salmon. Known as Pebble Mine, the project targets an estimated $500 billion in mineral deposits and would be the largest open-pit mine on the continent. A federal decision on the proposal is expected soon, but the EPA recently warned the mine "would cause irreversible damage to one of the world's last intact salmon ecosystems." 

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