The Bering Sea is known to scientists and conservationists as one of the most remarkable places on Earth -- a home to sponges, coral, fish, crab, skates, sperm whales, orcas, Steller sea lions, and a vast array of other species all part of a delicate ecosystem extremely vulnerable to human activity. Take a look:
But here's what's new -- as of this week, the Bering Sea is remarkable for another reason -- it's the impetus for a an amazing breakthrough in the way we work to protect our oceans.
On Monday in Juneau, Alaska, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to identify key coral areas in the Bering Sea canyons and consider measures to protect them. While this may sound like a routine decision in a far off place, it's anything but the status quo.
The council's decision comes in the middle of an ongoing campaign to protect the "Grand Canyons of the Sea" from the impacts of fishing gear like massive pollock trawl nets that destroy fragile corals and threaten life in the Bering Sea. You may not have heard much about pollock day-to-day, but it's in fish sticks, fast food fish sandwiches, and even imitation crab. It's a big deal fish--in fact, calling it the "billion dollar fish" is an understatement.
This campaign, like most conservations initiatives, has gathered together numerous green groups like Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, Oceana, and Mission Blue. But what's different about this campaign is that major seafood retailers like Safeway, Trader Joe's, and, yes, even McDonald's have looked beyond their next quarters' earnings to the long-term viability of our environment (and their products) These business leaders have admirably urged the Council to look further into the available science to protect the canyons from destructive fishing, because they too want the Bering Sea to have a sustainable foundation for the future. We know from what we've seen from the oceans around the world that a thriving ecosystem today can turn into a wasteland tomorrow without sustainable management, so the problem is urgent.
What else is new with this campaign is the truly remarkable amount of citizen engagement. This week, as the Council deliberated in Juneau, everywhere they went flyers, posters, and banners held by activists reminded them that more than 100,000 people were urging them to protect the canyons -- an unprecedented amount of public input in this process. When Council member John Henderschedt spoke to his breakthrough motion yesterday he began by saying, "thanks to all who provided comments -- your voices are important to this process, and they have been heard."
If the industry and government operated in secret, who knows what it would take for them to work sustainably. But because Greenpeace and other conservation groups have been able to show the wider world what's at stake in the Bering Sea, people have been able to decide for themselves how they want their world. Greenpeace has had the privilege of taking this message to the decision-makers in government and industry to create a new way forward, one that includes more voices than just that of the highest bidder.
The struggle to protect the "Grand Canyons of the Sea" is far from over, but on Monday in Juneau something remarkable happened, something that might just signal a sea change in how we protect our oceans.