Forming the southern boundary of the Bering Sea, the Aleutian Islands archipelago stretches for more than 1,000 miles. This windswept and remote region is home to a rich diversity of fish species, birds that migrate from all seven continents, and marine mammals ranging from endangered Steller sea lions to humpback whales. Although this unique ecological area has been designated a National Maritime Wildlife Refuge and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, it continues to face the impacts of oil spills and other pollution from the global shipping industry. As shipping along the Aleutian Island segment of the ‘Great Circle Route’ connecting North America and Asian markets has increased, so too has the number of catastrophic accidents and near-misses involving some of the largest vessels in the world.
On December 6, 2004, the cargo vessel Selendang Ayu, which was carrying 66,000 tons of soybeans from Seattle, Washington to Xiamen, China, experienced engine problems. The 738 foot long ship was shut down and allowed to drift while repairs were made. The ship drifted along the Aleutian chain, but the captain did not call the U.S. Coast Guard immediately. When the crew was unable to start the engine the following morning, the weather had worsened and the Selendang Ayu was dead in the water—and taking the full force of 35 mph winds and 15 foot waves. By the time the Coast Guard was alerted and rescue vessels arrived on the scene, winds were exceeding 60 mph, with waves reaching 25 feet. Despite the efforts of rescue crews, the extreme weather conditions forced the grounding of the Selendang Ayu near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Tragically, several of the ship’s crew members were killed when a helicopter crashed while attempting to rescue them. The ship eventually broke in half, spilling more than 300,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel, which is more toxic to the environment than crude oil.
The death of crew members, a large oil spill, and the resulting impacts to wildlife, including thousands of dead birds, are horrific. It gets even worse though: this tragedy could have been avoided. These sailing conditions are not extraordinary and with thousands of vessels transiting the Aleutian Islands every year, the dangers are well known. Due to the remoteness of the region, however, U.S. prevention and response regulations that apply to other areas in the country have not been enforced. In the wake of this tragic incident and several near-misses since then, however, several important lessons have come to light. First, we need vessels to operate with a higher standard of care. It was later discovered that the M/V Selendang Ayu parent company had criminally neglected maintenance of the ship’s engines. Second, increased efforts must be made towards prevention, including increased vessel tracking and reporting. If the captain or a third party monitoring the vessel had reported the situation to the Coast Guard immediately, the response would have been quicker. Third, although some might argue that full compliance with U.S. and State of Alaska regulations may be cost prohibitive, simply waiving those provisions is irresponsible. We must do more and avoid another tragedy like the Selendang Ayu.
With prodding from the conservation community, part of the settlement funds from a criminal plea agreement with the owner of the Selendang Ayu went to funding a multi-year quantitative risk assessment to overhaul every aspect of shipping through the Aleutian Islands. Ocean Conservancy currently sits as the primary conservation representative on the Advisory Panel and we have been working with the State of Alaska, the Coast Guard, the shipping industry, federal wildlife managers, fishermen, and others to bring forward a comprehensive package of measures to make sure that the Aleutian Island region is protected.
We have also focused on practical measures that can be implemented immediately. Some of these measures include better coordination of emergency tugs transiting the region, increased tracking and monitoring of vessels, an emergency towing system based in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and a system that routes vessels away from shore and through the least dangerous passes along the archipelago.
At the conclusion of the risk assessment we will finalize our consensus recommendations and turn our attention to implementation and funding of the more detailed recommendations, which will include obtaining protections through the International Maritime Organization, increasing spill response equipment in the region, and requiring state of the art tugboats that can prevent future tragedies like the Selendang Ayu and preserve wildlife and livelihoods in the Aleutian Islands.