Anchorage - President Barack Obama announced on Tuesday that he's removing more than 135 000km2 of waters off Alaska's coast from consideration for oil and gas exploration or drilling.
The president said in a video announcement that Bristol Bay and nearby waters, covering an area roughly the size of Florida, would be withdrawn from consideration for petroleum leases.
He called Bristol Bay one of the country's great natural resources and a massive economic engine.
"It's something that's too precious for us to be putting out to the highest bidder," Obama said.
Bristol Bay has supported Native Americans in the Alaska region for centuries, he said.
"It supports about $2bn in the commercial fishing industry," Obama said. "It supplies America with 40% of its wild-caught seafood."
The bay is north of the Alaska Peninsula, which juts out west from mainland Alaska at the start of the Aleutian Islands chain.
Petroleum leases sold there in the mid-1980s were bought back in 1995 at taxpayer expense for $95mn after the Exxon Valdez spill, said Marilyn Heiman, US Arctic director for Pew Charitable Trusts.
Declining fisheries industry
Fisheries around the world are in decline, but Bristol Bay's well-managed fisheries are some of the most productive in the world and worthy of protection, she said.
Robin Samuelson, chairman of Bristol Bay economic development corporation and a lifelong resident of Dillingham at the head of the bay, said protection for the fishery has been a 25-year battle. The bay supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, and the waters are nursing grounds for halibut and crab.
Obama and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in March 2010 that a planned 2011 lease sale in what the Interior Department refers to as the North Aleutian Basin would be cancelled. Salazar cited a lack of infrastructure and the bay's valuable natural resources.
The temporary withdrawal was set to expire in 2017. Obama's decision on Tuesday under authority of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 withdraws the area permanently.
Republican senator Lisa Murkowski said she's not objecting to the president's decision at this time, given the industry's lack of interest in the area and a public divide over allowing oil and gas exploration there.
According to the White House, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was the first to use presidential authority to withdraw acreage from offshore drilling consideration.
Eisenhower in 1960 withdrew an area now included in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and presidents from both parties have withdrawn other areas.