11/14/2013 - The fog is thick. We cannot see our destination, the Punuk Islands, three rocky lumps a few miles east of St. Lawrence Island, in the northern Bering Sea. So we resort to age-old methods of listening for waves breaking on a shore, while watching puffins, cormorants, and murres to see where they are heading. The sounds and the birds confirm that we are on the right track, perhaps a mile away.
Martin Robards from the Wildlife Conservation Society and I are here in our guide Perry Pungowiyi’s 18-foot skiff to better understand how increased commercial shipping will affect the wildlife and people of this region. The St. Lawrence Island Yupik have been here for millennia, andon the Punuk Islands, the bones of whales and walrus sit on the tundra, leaving no doubt as to how people live on a treeless island that is ice-bound half the year.
The rapid loss of Arctic summer sea ice is leading to an increase in northern shipping traffic. The Bering Strait is the bottleneck between the Pacific and Arctic Oceans, and St. Lawrence Island sits just south of the Strait, right in the path of the vessels heading from Europe to East Asia, or from northern Alaska to southern destinations.
For hunters who rely on the sea, oil tankers and cargo vessels are a new worry—for the health of the ocean and for the safety of people in 18-foot motorboats. The nonprofit Marine Exchange of Alaska built and operates the Automated Identification System, or AIS, that track ships.
Most commercial vessels are required to have AIS transmitters, but they can also be carried by small ones, such as Perry’s skiff. Other vessels, as well as receiving stations on shore or on satellites in space, can see where the AIS-equipped boats are, reducing the likelihood of collisions and aiding when rescues are necessary. On the way back from the Punuks, we encounter miles-long rafts of crested and least auklets sitting on the sea surface. As our boat approaches, they take to the air, and I begin to understand how flocks of birds can blacken the sky. While birds and eggs are popular food items, marine mammals are the main source of local food for the 1,400 people who live on St. Lawrence. The northern Bering Sea is home to Arctic species in winter and sub-Arctic species in summer, making it especially rich in both abundance and diversity of marine life.
Commercial shipping poses a threat to this abundance, through disturbance of birds and mammals and, potentially, through oil or fuel spills. Our work with the St. Lawrence Island Yupik and other peoples in the region will help us identify areas to be avoided by ships, and other measures to promote safety and environmental well-being, such as the AIS system we are testing as well as speed restrictions, shipping lanes, and better charting.
For now, watching puffins fly past in the fog, we are happy just to be on the water, enjoying the beauty of an area that few people see in person, and reminding ourselves of why it is important to conserve the sea and the way of life it supports.
Henry P. Huntington is a senior officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts, where he directs the science work of its Arctic programs.
Pew staff members travel the globe, often reaching places few others have a chance to see. They share their experiences through Dispatches. To see more, including photos and a longer version of this story, go to pewenvironment.org and search for “Dispatch.”