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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs > Releases > Remarks > 2001

Polar Bear Conservation Agreement With Russia

Margaret F. Hayes, Director of the Office of Oceans Affairs
Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
Testimony before the House Committee on Resources, Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife, and Oceans
Washington, DC
October 11, 2001

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for the opportunity to share the State Departmentís views on the "Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population" (hereinafter referred to as the bilateral Agreement.)

Polar bears are an internationally protected species that live in the circumpolar North in five countries: the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Greenland. An important part of a sensitive ecosystem, polar bears know no national boundaries. They continue to be essential to the survival of native people, including Alaskans, as a renewable subsistence resource upon which they have depended for centuries.

The United States has long recognized our common interest in the responsible management of shared polar bear resources. We have been party to the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears since 1973, along with Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (on behalf of Greenland). The 1973 Agreement explicitly provides for the possibility that the Parties might establish new measures "so as to provide more stringent controls than those required under the provisions of this Agreement." Article VII of the 1973 Agreement further mandates that the Parties coordinate research, consult on management, and exchange information. The bilateral Agreement furthers the objectives of these provisions of the 1973 Agreement.

The United States and Russia signed the bilateral Agreement in October 2000. It is designed to afford protection additional to that provided by the 1973 Agreement to the polar bears shared between our two countries, while addressing the present-day concerns of Alaska and Chukotka Natives, as well as social, economic, environmental, and technological developments since 1973. Additional protection is needed to ensure that the subsistence take of polar bears by native people in Alaska and in the Chukotka region, and other activities, are consistent with a sustainable approach to the management of this population. The 1973 Agreement allows taking of polar bears for subsistence purposes by native people, as does our domestic legislation -- the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) -- in respect of Alaska Natives.

Informal discussions between the United States and Russia on a bilateral treaty to conserve our shared Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population began in 1992. Formal negotiations began in 1998 and were led jointly by the State Department (OES) and the Department of the Interior (Fish and Wildlife Service). Other U.S. participants included the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, the North Slope Borough, the State of Alaskaís Department of Fish and Game, the Marine Mammal Commission, and the National Audubon Society. Thus, the bilateral Agreement is the result of eight years of discussions and negotiations with the Russian Federation, and involving the direct participation of Alaska and Chukotka Natives.

We agreed with Russia that sustainable management of the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population requires a legally binding instrument for the two countries to jointly determine and allocate subsistence take from that population.

U.S. negotiators specifically sought and achieved in the bilateral Agreement the inclusion of the following elements:

  • Recognition of the right of subsistence use of polar bears from the Alaska-Chukotka population by native people of Alaska and Chukotka;
  • Inclusion of a definition of sustainable harvest level reflecting a clear obligation to conserve the population;
  • Establishment of a joint management mechanism, in the form of a bilateral commission, that can establish binding quotas to ensure that subsistence take of polar bears from the Alaska-Chukotka population is consistent with maintenance of that population at sustainable population levels;
  • Full involvement of the native people of Alaska and Chukotka in the implementation of the Agreement, including a provision that each party will include in its national section in the commission a representative of its native people (as well as a representative of the national government); and
  • Additional studies and research relating to the conservation and management of the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population, including collection of data necessary for regular and accurate population assessment and harvest monitoring.

The Administration believes that U.S. interests will be served through the responsible management of the Alaska-Chukotka polar bears at sustainable population levels. The bilateral Agreement provides for long-term joint programs, such as conservation of ecosystems and important habitat areas, setting of sustainable harvest levels, collection of biological information, and increased partnerships with local and private interests. It is also designed to ensure that subsistence take from this population is by the native people of Alaska and Chukotka only, and to provide for equitable allocation of such take between them. Further, it incorporates mechanisms for the continued research and assessment of the status of this population. In all these respects, it fulfills the spirit and intent of the 1973 Agreement.

The bilateral Agreement, which we hope to submit to the Senate soon for advice and consent to ratification, is in many ways a potential model of international cooperation. Not only will this Agreement serve our continued interest in conserving our magnificent polar bears, but it will also ensure the continuance of a way of life that depends on the bearsí existence. Furthermore, there is benefit in reaching this consensus on shared interests with Russia. We have agreed on common principles and set out a fair mechanism for allocating limited resources in good faith between the legitimate claims of Russia and Alaska Natives. Our success here can serve as a basis for cooperation in other areas of mutual interest.  Thank you very much. 

Released on October 11, 2001

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