The Bering Strait—the only marine gateway between Pacific and Arctic oceans—is a key biological hotspot. As this recent blog post explained, the strait hosts an extraordinary abundance of wildlife. Every spring, huge numbers of marine mammals and birds migrate north through the strait on their way to Arctic waters.
In recent years, the Bering Strait has also turned into a hotspot for shipping. As sea ice in the Arctic retreats, vessel traffic is growing steadily. A recent analysis by the U.S. Coast Guard notes that “commercial ventures in the Arctic have increased maritime traffic in the Bering Strait. From 2008 to 2012, traffic through the Bering Strait increased by 118 percent.” Many types of vessels contribute to the growth in maritime traffic. Some of these ships provide supplies to coastal communities, some support oil and gas activities, and some travel between Europe and Asia across the Arctic Ocean on the Northern Sea Route along the Russian Arctic coast.
To be clear, the current level of vessel traffic in the Bering Strait is modest compared to other major shipping corridors, such as the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, or even the Great Circle Route through the Aleutian Islands. At the same time, however, the Bering Strait poses distinct challenges that increase objective risks. These include a remote operating environment, the presence of seasonal sea ice and the relative absence of basic maritime infrastructure and information. A 2012 report by the State of Alaska’s Northern Waters Task Force cited a shortage “of detailed navigational charts, reliable weather forecasting, vessel traffic separation protocols, search and rescue infrastructure, and overall maritime domain awareness.”
There’s no doubt that growth in vessel traffic through the Bering Strait will result in increased impacts. These include higher levels of noise pollution and air emissions, more discharge of pollutants into the water, and increased potential for the introduction of invasive species. These impacts pose threats to the Bering Strait’s fish, birds, marine mammals and human communities. In addition, as the ice-free season lengthens and vessel traffic grows, there is greater potential for ships to strike bowhead whales and other marine mammals as they migrate through the Bering Strait, injuring or killing individual animals.
And then there’s the risk of a major accident resulting in a large spill, such as we have seen in Alaska’s heavily trafficked Aleutian Islands. As the Coast Guard concluded in its 2013 Arctic Strategy, multiple factors combine to “make the Bering Strait region increasingly vulnerable to maritime casualties,” such as vessel groundings, spills, and collisions. If a marine disaster took place in the Bering Strait during a critical migration period, it could have catastrophic consequences for a large number of individual animals, and it could affect a number of species important to the region’s ecology.
These impacts could also spill over to harm the people who live in Bering Strait communities and depend on the region’s biological resources to support their way of life. The threat of a major oil spill is of particular concern in potentially icy waters, like those of the Bering Strait, because sea ice can significantly reduce the effectiveness of mechanical oil containment and removal technologies.
Given the rapid increase in vessel traffic, the remoteness and lack of infrastructure, the ecological importance of the area and the potential for truly significant impacts to wildlife and people, there is an urgent need to improve maritime safety and environmental protection in the Bering Strait region. Fortunately, a variety of tools are available to help achieve that objective. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post that will identify some of the most promising options.