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How We Can Respond to Increased Shipping in the Bering Strait

Posted On May 28, 2014 by

Recent posts on The Blog Aquatic have focused on the Bering Strait: the 50-mile-wide gateway that separates Alaska from Russia, and that provides the only marine passage between the North Pacific and the Arctic oceans.

Two weeks ago, we highlighted the extraordinary abundance of wildlife that migrates through the Bering Strait each spring—from bowhead whales and ice-dependent seals to walruses and seabirds. We also emphasized the importance of the region’s highly productive marine ecosystem to the residents of coastal communities who rely on marine resources to support their subsistence way of life and cultural traditions.

Last week’s blog entry described how the retreat of seasonal sea ice in the Arctic has facilitated the steady growth of vessel traffic through the Bering Strait. We noted that these additional ship transits will cause more air, water and noise pollution; elevate the risk of ship strikes and the potential for introduction of invasive species; and increase the odds of major spills that could have catastrophic effects on the ecosystem. And we described how the Bering Strait’s harsh environmental conditions, remoteness, and lack of infrastructure combine to increase operational risks and create enormous challenges for those who would respond to accidents in the region.

How should we respond to these threats?

We can take one option off the table right away: closing the Bering Strait to vessel traffic is not a viable approach. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law, the Bering Strait is considered an international strait, which means that vessels of all nations have rights to “continuous and expeditious transit of the strait.”

Fortunately, there are more pragmatic ways to mitigate the risks associated with increasing vessel traffic in the Bering Strait. Some of these measures include:

  • Improve weather forecasts and nautical charting: Weather and sea-ice forecasts in the Bering Strait are not optimal; the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) admits that weather “prediction capabilities are currently poorer in the Arctic than in other parts of the United States.” Better forecasts would help mariners identify and manage risks. In addition, the Bering Strait, along with other marine waters in the U.S. Arctic, is not charted to modern standards. NOAA’s April 2014 Arctic Action Plan describes current charting data as “inadequate or nonexistent” and recognizes that better charting “would improve maritime safety and efficiency” in the region. Nautical charts are essential tools for maritime navigation.
  • Establish vessel traffic lanes. Designating mandatory lanes for ship traffic in the Bering Strait would increase safety and reduce the chance of collisions. It would also help ensure that vessels stay well offshore, providing additional response time in the event that a ship loses propulsion or experiences some other difficulty. Additional response time may prove critical in this remote area.
  • Designate areas to be avoided. As the name implies, designation of areas to be avoided establishes regions of the ocean that are off-limits to ship traffic. In the Bering Strait, strategic designation of Areas to be Avoided would help ensure that vessels steer clear of hazards and areas that may be especially sensitive to impacts from traffic.
  • Enhance communications and reporting systems: Establishing a more robust communication and reporting protocol for the Bering Strait region would facilitate information exchange among the Coast Guard, vessels, and local communities. Some of this information exchange could be accomplished automatically, using the automatic identification systems (AIS) carried by most vessels. Two-way communication could help alert mariners to the presence of marine mammals, subsistence activities, or hazardous ice conditions in the area. Enhanced vessel monitoring could assist with the early identification of vessels in distress and encourage mariners to comply with regulatory requirements.

These are just a few possibilities. Other options are available to enhance safety, limit water and air pollution, and improve response speed and capacity in the event of an accident in the region.

While none of these options is particularly complicated, implementation of regulatory measures in the Bering Strait is made more challenging because of the region’s status as an international strait. For example, that status places limits on the ability of the United States to regulate foreign-flagged vessels transiting the strait. More comprehensive regulation can be achieved through the International Maritime Organization (IMO), but the IMO’s processes can take considerable time to unfold.

These challenges make it all the more important to get a head start on addressing the threats of increasing vessel traffic through the Bering Strait. Now is the time to set in motion the measures that will increase safety, reduce environmental risks, and enhance the capacity to respond effectively when something goes wrong.