The Chukchi Sea, off the coast of northwest Alaska, is one of the most productive ocean ecosystems in the world. Its vast, shallow sea floor and seasonal ice cover provide nutrients and pristine habitat for a multitude of organisms, ranging from walruses to ice seals to whales to millions of seabirds to the top predator mammal, the polar bear.
But the Chukchi Sea is changing dramatically. The evidence of global climate change is evident here perhaps like no other place on earth. Sea temperatures are rising, shorelines are dramatically eroding, and summer sea ice is receding to historic lows. As sea ice retreats, there are substantial prospects for new industrial activities in the Chukchi, including commercial fishing, commercial shipping, and oil and gas extraction.
Scroll down to read more about the magnificent wildlife of the Chukchi Sea, Audubon's position on balance in the Arctic, and how you can help protect the Chukchi Sea.
Mammals of the Chukchi
The Chukchi Sea is distinctly different from lower latitude seas and makes direct and important contributions to global ocean and climate systems. Ice in particular is a critical feature of the Chukchi. The ice edge produces a rich profusion of phytoplankton, which is the base of the food chain for all marine and coastal Arctic wildlife and people, especially with a lack of benthic predation by warmer water fish, such as salmon and pollock. The Chukchi's shallow and highly productive sea floor allows bottom-dwelling prey (crustacea, mollusks, etc.) to flourish, creating a buffet for wildlife specialized to feed off the ocean floor, such as walrus, seals, gray whales, and deep-diving sea birds. Many of these species also rely on ice edges for resting, denning, and/or calving.
Perhaps most famously, Chukchi Sea is home to roughly half of America's polar bears, approximately 2,000 animals, or one-tenth of the world's population. Polar bears are integrally tied to sea ice for hunting, resting, breeding, and denning. Yet as the summer sea ice has retreated dramatically over the past 15 years, especially off the coast of Alaska, polar bears are increasingly denning on coastal lands instead. The melting sea ice has also reduced the area available to polar bears for hunting seals, the bear's chief prey species, and is forcing bears to swim farther in search of food and denning sites. A September 2007 study from the United States Geological Survey forecasts a loss of two-thirds of the world's polar bears—and all of Alaska's polar bears—by 2050. Other studies have documented polar bear drownings, smaller body size, lower cub survival rates, and cannibalism due to sea ice retreating. Based on this evidence and other scientific work, the polar bear was declared "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008.
The most common prey species of the polar bear is the ringed seal, one of the so-called "ice seals" of the Chukchi. Other Chukchi ice seals include ribbon, bearded, and spotted seals. True to their nickname, these seals are ice dependent, relying on ice edges to hunt and give birth to and nurse pups. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently decided to study these ice seals for possible listing under the ESA. In 2009 NMFS found that the ribbon seal did not warrant listing under the ESA, and the assessment of other "ice seals" is continuing.
In addition to seals, most of the Pacific walrus population uses the Chukchi Sea during the summer months. Unlike seals, walruses cannot swim indefinitely and rely on ice floes extensively for resting and as platforms from which to feed on mollusks and other benthic invertebrates. During the summer of 2007, as the ice retreated beyond the continental shelf, unprecedented numbers of walruses "hauled out" on shore in Alaska and in Russia, and thousands of walruses were killed in stampedes as the animals crowded onto the shoreline in extraordinary numbers. Walruses have also suffered from population declines as feeding and nursing their young have grown increasingly difficult. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating listing the Pacific walrus under the ESA.
The Chukchi is also important for whales. Endangered fin and humpback whales, and formerly endangered gray whales, feed in the Chukchi’s shallows, and up to 3,500 beluga whales use Kasegaluk Lagoon near Point Lay for feeding, calving, and molting. In addition, most of the western Arctic Ocean’s endangered bowhead whales, the most important subsistence and cultural resource of many Alaskan North Slope residents, migrate along the Chukchi coast.
Birds of the Chukchi
The bays, inlets, and river outlets lining the Chukchi also provide breeding, feeding, and staging areas for millions of shorebirds, seabirds, and waterfowl. At least 15 species on Audubon's Alaska WatchList use the Chukchi, including Spectacled Eiders, which are listed as threatened under the ESA, and Yellow-billed Loons, which have been found to warrant ESA listing (but are not a study priority). Yellow-billed Loons are among the species affected by a recent oil spill off the coast of South Korea.
There are small populations of Kittlitz’s Murrelets in the Chukchi Sea. Nests have been found inland in the DeLong Mountains and Lisburne Hills, and murrelets have been found up to 40-50 miles offshore, primarily in the Cape Lisburne area north of Point Hope. Kittlitz's Murrelets have undergone dramatic reductions in population in recent years and are currently under study by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for potential ESA listing.
Several globally and continentally significant Important Bird Areas (IBAs) are within the Chukchi, including 18 IBAs on the US side of the Chukchi Sea and six more on the Russian side. Included among these are marine feeding areas for Northern Fulmars and Short-tailed Shearwaters and nesting and feeding areas for huge colonies of Common Murres and Thick-billed Murres.
Ledyard Bay, an IBA just south of the new oil and gas leases, is a Critical Habitat Area for ESA-listed Spectacled Eiders. In fact, most of the female Spectacled Eiders that breed on the Arctic Coastal Plain molt in Ledyard Bay. About 33,000 Spectacled Eiders and 500,000 King Eiders feed on mollusks and other bottom food in the shallow waters of the Bay. From April into November, nearly all of the breeding King Eiders from the US and Canada, plus many Russian breeding King Eiders, migrate through, stage, and forage in the eastern Chukchi. King Eiders utilize the shallow open polynas of the Chukchi to dive for mollusks and other invertebrates in spring and early summer, prior to dispersing to breeding grounds in Canada and Russia and on Alaska’s North Slope.
Oil and Gas Leasing in the Arctic Ocean
Despite its spectacular wildlife, the Chukchi Sea is under intense pressure from prospective oil and gas development, especially as the sea ice melts. In February of 2008, in its first lease sale in nearly 20 years, nearly three million acres in the Chukchi Sea were sold for over $2.6 billion. The leased areas are roughly 50-60 miles from the northwest coast of Alaska. Audubon, in partnership with several Alaska Native and conservation groups, filed a lawsuit to block implementation of that lease sale and future exploratory activities. The suit charged that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) lacked the necessary data to assess resource values and impacts and had not properly followed the mandates of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Outer Continental Shelf Leasing Act (OCSLA), or the ESA. Plaintiffs have submitted briefs, and the new Administration has asked for additional time to assess the suit.
Adjacent to the Chukchi Sea to the east, the Beaufort Sea is under similar development pressure, though courts have recently intervened. Shell Oil had planned exploratory drilling in the Beaufort close to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but a 9th United States Circuit Court of Appeals halted those plans in November 2008. The court found that the MMS failed to take into account the potential impacts of drilling on the bowhead whale population and local subsistence use of the whales. As of May 2009, Shell had suspended its 2009 drilling plans, pending appeals of the ruling. Only one field in the near-shore outer continental shelf (OCS) of the Beaufort Sea, off the coast of Prudhoe Bay, is currently producing oil, though the State of Alaska has held several lease sales in the state-owned waters of the Beaufort Sea within three miles of shore.
There is a push for development in both the Chukchi Sea and the adjacent Beaufort Sea.
Balance in the Arctic: Audubon’s Position
Although Audubon has not opposed oil and gas leasing and development in many areas of the Arctic, there are several places where natural values are so important, and/or where so little is known of the dynamic environment, that further development should not be allowed. The Chukchi Sea is one of those special places.
Global climate change is a growing threat, and its effects in the Arctic are obvious and dramatic. In 2007 the summer polar ice pack lost more than 1.5 million square miles, 20 percent more than had ever been previously recorded—an area larger than the states of Alaska, Texas, and California combined. Some scientists predict that the permanent Arctic Ocean sea ice may be gone by 2040.
With the disappearance of sea ice habitat, there has been a flurry of petitions and proposals to protect several of the Arctic's at-risk, ice-dependent marine mammals under the ESA. Given indications of population decline and stress, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the polar bear as threatened. Meanwhile, the National Marine Fisheries Service is considering listing ringed, bearded, spotted, and ribbon seals, and petitions have been filed to list the Pacific walrus.
Relatively little is known about the Chukchi Sea ecosystem and the unique wildlife that depends on it. The government’s environmental impact statements for the February 2008 lease sale were largely based on outdated, incomplete, and inadequate research and analysis. Agency scientists overwhelming believe that more research is needed for monitoring and mitigating impacts. With the acknowledged lack of baseline information, monitoring impacts would be nearly impossible, and management of those impacts would be rendered meaningless.
The chances of an oil spill in these fragile waters are very real, and the technology for oil cleanup in remote, ice-choked waters does not exist. The MMS admits that there is currently no way to adequately respond to oil spills in solid and broken ice conditions and that oil development, particularly a large spill, could cause long-lasting and devastating sociocultural impacts, including contamination of food and water, erosion of community integrity and identity, and substantial impairment to subsistence due to animal loss or changes in migration routes and behavior. Mitigation measures to prevent adverse impacts on the Arctic Ocean environment and wildlife have not been adequately or realistically described.
Audubon’s position is that leasing in the Chukchi Sea should not be permitted until:
- the needed research has been conducted,
- potential impacts and mitigation measures have been adequately addressed,
- effective oil spill clean-up technologies have been demonstrated and proven,
- decisions have been made to list all petitioned Arctic species, and
- critical habitat has been designated for all ESA species.
What You Can Do
- Join the Audubon Action Alert Network to receive periodic email alerts on urgent Arctic, Alaska, and national conservation issues as they arise.
- Donate online now to Audubon Alaska to support our science and policy work in the Arctic.
“Alaska’s Important Bird Areas and Chukchi Sea Oil” – a blog article from the editors of Birder’s World magazine
"Polar Distress”- Audubon magazine’s article on the Chukchi lease sale
Audubon’s November 2010 comments on the draft supplemental environmental impact statement on Lease Sale 193 (oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea)
Our October 2010 letter to the US Geological Survey providing comment on a science gap analysis for the Arctic Ocean
MMS webpages: the proposed new OCS oil and gas leasing plan for 2010-2015 (3.8 MB PDF) and the homepage on the OCS Leasing Program.
- Issues & Action
- Important Bird Areas