BERING SEA BIODIVERSITY
The Center has long pursued legal protections for Bering Sea wildlife and their habitat, including the North Pacific right whale, Kittlitz’s murrelet, northern sea otter, and yellow-billed loon. But in 2006, we completed a project aimed at increasing international protections for the entire ecosystem. Our Bering Sea biodiversity assessment culminated a two-year survey of scientific literature on animals that depend on the Sea, identifying those in need of protection and enumerating threats to their survival.
The Bering Sea supports some of the largest populations of seabirds, shorebirds, and marine mammals in the world. Fish diversity in the Sea is particularly high compared to that in other cold water regions, representing nearly three times as many species as the Antarctic and more than twice as many as Greenland. Our assessment of 549 vertebrate species included 418 fish, 102 birds, and 29 marine mammals. We identified 66 species of concern, or 12 percent of all vertebrates found in the Bering Sea. Of these species of concern, 52 (79 percent) were further classified as vulnerable, nine (13.6 percent) as imperiled, and five (7.6 percent) as critically imperiled. Our study also identified potential threats to 22 percent of Bering Sea vertebrates, determining that commercial fishing — either through direct exploitation, bycatch, or competition — potentially impacts the greatest number of Bering Sea species (56 percent), followed by pollution (48 percent), ecological factors (28 percent), poaching (20 percent), global climate change (20 percent), habitat destruction (20 percent), human disturbance (17 percent), and exotic species (17 percent).
In combination, these factors present a serious threat to one of the richest and most beautiful cold-water seas in the world. Our study developed a number of recommendations to address that threat, including increased restrictions on fishing, prohibition of offshore oil drilling, and international efforts to reduce pollution and global warming. In the summer of 2006, Center staff presented our research at a meeting of the International Bering Sea Forum in Kamchatka, Russia, which voted to sponsor translation and publication of the report in Russian.
The Center has been working to secure Endangered Species Act protection for more than 70 of the world’s rarest bird species, including the slender-billed curlew, which formerly occurred in abundance throughout Europe and Siberia but is now down to an extremely small population size. More than two decades after ornithologists petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect this and other birds, the agency had yet to take action — so we filed a lawsuit in 2006 to force the Service to acknowledge the birds’ peril. The Service has now committed to publishing proposed listings for many of these species, including the slender-billed curlew, by the end of 2009. Learn more about our International Birds Initiative.