ANCHORAGE - Fishermen and environmentalists teamed up this week for a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., in hopes of discouraging support for offshore oil and gas leasing proposals in Bristol Bay, one of the world's most prolific salmon fisheries.
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Two months ago, the Bush administration removed a presidential ban on oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay, an area under Congressional protection since 1990 following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound the year before. The Congressional ban was lifted in 2003.
"The fishery is tied to the concept of the wild Alaska salmon in its pure environment," said Terry Hoefferle of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. "Why would you bring an industry like oil into the middle of that? It's like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa."
The U.S. Mineral Management Service has included the North Aleutian Basin, through which the Bristol Bay salmon migrate, in its proposed national plan for offshore oil and gas leasing from 2007 to 2012. A final decision is expected around May 1, according to Gary Strasburg, an agency spokesman.
Oil companies and some local groups, who believe drilling could bring economic stability, have been encouraging the federal government to open Bristol Bay to exploration.
"It's about economic diversity," said Jason Metrokin, spokesman for the Bristol Bay Native Corp. He said the group supports fishing, but also believes there should be some way to find out how much oil and gas might be at stake.
The Aleutians East Borough also supports leasing.
Within Alaska's congressional delegation, Sen. Ted Stevens has taken the strongest stance on the issue. He believes the push to close off the region from oil and gas interests is being backed by "extreme national environmental groups."
Rep. Don Young opposes the moratorium but argues for a public process free of interference from out-of-state interests.
"The fishermen have made a good argument for additional input from them into the process," he said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski has opted to defer to local decision-makers.
"In most cases we're not going to be an advocate for development in an area where it's not certain there's a consensus in what people want to do," said her spokesman, Kevin Sweeney. "In Bristol Bay, it really appears that it's sort of a 50-50 in terms of those who are pro and against."
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