The sea was explored by the Russian Semyon Dezhnev in the 17th cent., but not until after the voyages of Vitus Bering (1728, 1741) was the fur-seal wealth of the Bering Sea made widely known. The whole region was under the control of the Russian American Company, but it proved impossible to prevent mariners from other nations from getting the skins of the seals and the sea otters.
The question of protecting the seals became (1886) the subject of a bitter international incident called the Bering Sea Fur-Seal Controversy. The seal herd that summered in the Pribilof Islands wintered farther south; when returning north in the spring they could be taken in the open sea. The pelagic (open-sea) sealing, practiced by Canadian and other sealing vessels, greatly reduced the herd and threatened it with extinction. The Alaska Commercial Company, which had a U.S. monopoly on the sealing, protested to the U.S. government, and in 1886 several Canadian vessels were seized and were condemned by a court at Sitka, Alaska.
The legal basis for such action was the claim that Russia had controlled all the Bering Sea and that the control had passed to the United States with the purchase of Alaska in 1867; by claiming to exercise jurisdiction beyond the three-mile limit the United States had invoked the doctrine of mare clausum (closed sea) for the first time. This was not accepted by the British, and a move to settle the matter of protection by international agreement was blocked by the Canadians. The matter was referred to an international court of arbitration, which, meeting in Paris, declared in 1893 against the U.S. claim and awarded $473,151 in damages to the owners of the seized vessels. It also imposed some restrictions on pelagic sealing, but these were ineffective.
In 1911, Great Britain, Russia, Japan, and the United States agreed to prohibit pelagic sealing; sealing in the Pribilofs was put completely under U.S. supervision. For several years sealing was stopped completely, and then it was resumed but only under careful restrictions. In 1941, Japan withdrew from the agreement, but a new agreement was signed in 1956.
The Bering (or Imarpik) Sea is a body of water in the Pacific Ocean that comprises a deep water basin (the Aleutian Basin) which rises through a narrow slope into the shallower water above the continental shelves.
The Bering Sea is separated from the Gulf of Alaska by the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. Covering over two million square kilometers (775,000 sq mi), it is bordered on the east and northeast by Alaska, on the west by Russia's Siberia and Kamchatka Peninsula, on the south by the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands and on the far north by the Bering Strait which separates the Bering Sea from the Arctic Ocean's Chukchi Sea. Bristol Bay is the portion of the Bering Sea which separates the Alaska Peninsula from mainland Alaska. The Bering Sea is named for the first European discoverer to sail its waters, the Danish navigator Vitus Bering.
The Bering Sea ecosystem includes resources within the jurisdiction of the United States and Russia, as well as international waters in the ‘Donut Hole’. The interaction between currents, sea ice, and weather make for a vigorous and productive ecosystem.
Most scientists believe that during the most recent ice age, sea level was low enough to allow humans and other animals to migrate on foot from Asia to North America across what is now the Bering Strait. This is commonly referred to as the "Bering land bridge" and is believed by some—though not all— to be the first point of entry of humans into the Americas.
Islands of the Bering Sea include:
Regions of the Bering Sea include
The Bering Sea Shelf break is the dominant driver of primary productivity in the Bering Sea. This zone, where the shallower continental shelf drops off into the Aleutian Basin is also known as the “Greenbelt”. Nutrient upwelling from the cold waters of the Aleutian basin flowing up the slope and mixing with shallower waters of the shelf provide for constant production of phytoplankton.
The second driver of productivity in the Bering Sea is seasonal sea ice that, in part, triggers the spring phytoplankton bloom. Seasonal melting of sea ice causes an influx of lower salinity water into the middle and other shelf areas, causing stratification and hydrographic effects which influence productivity. In addition to the hydrographic and productivity influence of melting sea ice, the ice itself also provides an attachment substrate for the growth of algae as well as interstitial ice algae. The productivity associated with sea ice is under threat as global warming causes a reduction of sea ice in the Bering Sea.
Some evidence suggests that great changes to the Bering Sea ecosystem have already occurred. Warm water conditions in the summer of 1997 resulted in a massive bloom of low energy coccolithophorid phytoplankton (Stockwell et al. 2001). A long record of carbon isotopes, which is reflective of primary production trends of the Bering Sea, exists from historical samples of bowhead whale baleen. Trends in carbon isotope ratios in whale baleen samples suggest that a 30-40% decline in average seasonal primary productivity has occurred over the last 50 years. The implication is that the carrying capacity of the Bering Sea is much lower now than it has been in the past.
The Bering Sea is home to some of the world's most interesting wildlife. This sea supports many endangered whale species including bowhead whale, blue whale, fin whale, sei whale, humpback whale, sperm whale, and the rarest whale in the world, the North Pacific Right Whale. Other marine mammals include walrus, Steller's sea lion, Northern Fur Seal, Beluga whales, Orcas (or Killer Whale), and polar bears.
The Bering Sea is very important to the seabirds of the world. Over 30 species of seabirds and approximately 20 million individuals breed in the Bering Sea region. Seabird species include tufted puffins, the endangered Short-tailed Albatross, Spectacled Eider, and Red-legged Kittiwakes. Many of these species are unique to the area, which provides highly productive foraging habitat, particularly along the shelf edge and in other nutrient-rich upwelling regions, such as the Pribilof, Zhemchug, and Pervenets canyons.
Two Bering Sea species, the Steller's Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) and spectacled cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus), are extinct because of overexploitation by man. In addition, a small subspecies of Canada goose, the Bering Canada goose (Branta canadensis asiatica) is extinct due to overhunting and introduction of rats to their breeding islands.
The Bering Sea supports many species of fish. Some species of fish support large and valuable commercial fisheries. Commercial fish species include 6 species of Pacific salmon, walleye pollock, red king crab, Pacific cod, Pacific halibut, yellowfin sole, Pacific ocean perch and sablefish.
Fish biodiversity is high, and at least 419 species of fish have been reported from the Bering Sea.
The Bering Sea is a world renowned treasure for its enormously productive and profitable fisheries, such as King Crab, opilio and tanner crabs, Bristol Bay salmon, pollock and other groundfish. These fisheries rely on the productivity of the Bering Sea via a complicated and little understood food web. The continued existence of these fisheries requires an intact, healthy, and productive ecosystem.
Commercial fishing is big business in the Bering Sea, which is relied upon by the largest seafood companies in the world to produce fish and shellfish. On the U.S. side, commercial fisheries catch approximately $1 billion worth of seafood annually, while Russian Bering Sea fisheries are worth approximately $600 million annually.