This New Year’s Day, I’m raising a toast in celebration of increased protection for 160,000 square miles of ocean surrounding Alaska’s windswept and ecologically rich Aleutian Islands that go into effect today.
Thousands of ships – some of which are carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic fuel – that ply this busy segment of the Great Circle Trade Route will now have to maintain a distance of 50 miles from the shoreline surrounding the Aleutian Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Defined as Areas To Be Avoided (ATBA), this newly enacted protection will buffer the Alaskan archipelago’s most sensitive coastal areas against pollution, noise and accidents.
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.
Photo: Alaska Dept of Environmental Conservation Spill Prevention and Response
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.