ANCHORAGE - The Ocean Conservancy wants five ocean sites in the United States, including Glacier Bay, and one in the Caribbean designated as wilderness to provide protections already granted on land.
"We must view the oceans in a new way - not as an infinite and inexhaustible resource but as a fragile web of life that is being damaged by human activities," Ocean Conservancy President Roger Rufe said in a statement.
The group held a news conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C., to announce the initiative. The Ocean Conservancy is the new name for the Center for Marine Conservation.
It wants wilderness designation for Prince William Sound and Glacier Bay, along with the Channel Islands in California, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the Dry Tortugas in Florida and the San Andres Archipelago in Colombia.
The Ocean Conservancy called the sites the "cornerstones" of its plan to have at least as much ocean designated as wilderness as is land currently designated in the National Wilderness Preservation System. That system includes 643 wilderness areas covering nearly 106 million acres of land, which is nearly 5 percent of the land in the United States.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said the proposal was nebulous.
"Wilderness is a concept we use to denote a land area in which no motorized uses are permitted. It's a recreation-oriented designation, not a conservation-oriented one," he said. "It's a land designation. Now we have a proposal to use it on water. What's next? Air wilderness?"
The group is not seeking a wilderness designation for all of Prince William Sound and Glacier Bay, said Kris Balliet, director of the Alaska regional office. The specific areas will be determined once the group holds community meetings and gets some feedback, she said.
Under the proposal, no hunting or fishing would be allowed in the designated areas even for subsistence, Balliet said.
"For this to work, we need to have people on the ground who believe in this," she said.
Declining fisheries and the number of dwindling species, including Steller sea lions, is evidence that certain areas in Alaska need wilderness protection, she said.
"We have 10 years of science that says this is a good idea," Balliet said.
Marc Jones, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, disagreed. He said more scientific research is needed, particularly when it comes to prohibiting commercial fishing, which he called the "lifeblood" of many small towns in Prince William Sound.
"What would Cordova be without commercial fishing?" he asked.
Tom Gemmell, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska, accused the Washington, D.C.-based group of trying to micromanage Alaska's resources. The state already has comprehensive state and federal environmental regulations, he said.
"We already have a lot of protected areas up here," Gemmell said. "They have already kicked us out of Glacier Bay."
The Ocean Conservancy said in a press release that "the rapid expansion of cruise ships and other recreational activities in the bay, such as charter fishing and whale watching, threaten this valuable and unique ecosystem." The group cited the potential for cruise ships to run aground and spill fuel. And it said that although commercial fishing is being phased out, recreational fishing is rising.
The group's proposal needs to be more specific, said Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association. The conservancy group needs to think through how a wilderness designation would affect Alaskans living in small fishing towns, according to Kelley.
"I don't think some of the folks know ... how devastating it would be," she said.