• Rapid ice-melt in the Arctic is heralding a sharp rise in shipping traffic.
  • Increased industrial marine transits pose serious risks for the environment and for communities living nearby.
  • Formal “areas to be avoided” have been designated to safeguard ecologically and culturally important coastal areas of the Bering Sea.

Historically low ice levels in the Bering Sea have brought new and increasing shipping traffic, while Arctic residents — including indigenous communities of Alaska and Russia who have depended on the region’s natural bounty for their livelihoods for millennia — are experiencing these and other effects of a fast-warming Arctic first-hand.

In early August, The National Snow and Ice Data Center reported winter sea ice at record-low levels in the Bering Sea. The news came as no surprise to the Alaska native villages along the states’ western coast. For years, these communities have witnessed the impacts of depleted coastal sea ice, which traditionally offered protection from winter storm surges, and of melting tundra that has left coastal homes vulnerable to the ocean — if not entirely subsumed. They have also borne witness as the melting sea ice has opened historically frozen waters and attracted new ship transits through the Bering Strait, and Bering and Chukchi Seas.

Shipping routes with reduced impact

A rise in shipping carries with it grave risks to the environment and to the livelihoods of proximate communities, but new conservation measures in the Bering Sea will help significantly reduce those risks. The United Nations agency responsible for marine safety standards has approved a set of two-way shipping routes through the Bering Strait, with formally declared “areas to be avoided” to reduce collision risks between vessels, help ships steer clear of ice, shoals, reefs and islands, lower the risk of pollution, streamline ship traffic and maintain a safe and respectful distance from subsistence areas frequented by local community members.

Two-way route proposal map

The conservation “win” is the result of years of analysis, advocacy and public vetting, and the culmination of efforts from Kawerak, an Alaska Native regional tribal consortium serving 20 federally recognized tribes of the Bering Strait region, and Audubon Alaska, Friends of the Earth, Ocean Conservancy, Pacific Environment and WWF, and many other individuals and organizations who recognized a need for better regulations to safeguard local marine life and subsistence activities. This kind of conservation is central to the work of our Marine Conservation Initiative, which aims to achieve protection of important marine habitats and sustainable management of fisheries in the North American Arctic, British Columbia and the U.S. West Coast, and to help foster the conditions that are needed to enable these outcomes. 

The new protections—with ship exclusion zones around Nunivak Island, St. Lawrence Island, and King Island—will go into effect in early 2019. In a region where a 100 to 500 percent increase in vessel traffic is anticipated by 2025, these measures will ensure that ships bypass culturally and ecologically significant coastal waters.


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