The Arctic Ocean connects to the frigid, northernmost stretch of the Pacific Ocean through the Bering Strait and Sea. These sub-Arctic waters abound with large populations of birds, mammals and fish, and support communities in Alaska and Russia who have long built their livelihoods around this bounty.
But in recent years, the extent of sea ice in the Bering has been at historically low levels, opening these waters to an unprecedented and sharp increase in shipping traffic. And this increase in industrial vessel transits poses serious risks for the marine environment and for proximate coastal communities. Indigenous communities in the region have voiced concern about the potential for oil spills, waste and fuel discharges, the introduction of invasive species, vessel strikes on marine wildlife and other negative consequences.
Through our Marine Conservation Initiative, which works to achieve healthy and resilient ocean ecosystems in the United States and Canada, we joined the Oak Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts in their support for organizations working to designate shipping lanes and safeguard the region’s marine life and subsistence activities. 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, World Wildlife Fund, and many other individuals and organizations contributed years of analysis, advocacy and public vetting that culminated in a major conservation victory in 2018: the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency responsible for marine safety standards, approved a new set of two-way shipping lanes through the Bering Strait and buffer zones around Nunivak, St. Lawrence and King islands. These new conservation measures will reduce the risks that increased shipping could bring to the environment and surrounding communities.
The shipping lanes and “areas to be avoided’ took effect in early 2019, and will protect some of the most vulnerable marine and coastal areas of the Bering Sea — reducing collision risks between vessels, lowering the risk of pollution, streamlining ship traffic, keeping vessels at a safe and respectful distance from subsistence areas frequented by local community members, and helping ships steer clear of ice, shoals, reefs and islands. As Arctic sea ice continues its retreat and the region braces for a 100 to 500 percent increase in vessel traffic by 2025, the new shipping routes will help ensure that vessels bypass culturally and ecologically significant coastal waters.