The northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait region is one of the most productive marine ecosystems on the planet. It is home to indigenous people who have lived a traditional way of life along its shores for untold generations and hosts one of the world’s largest marine migrations, including bowhead and beluga whales, Pacific walruses, ice seals, spectacled eiders, and many other seabirds. However, vessel traffic through the Bering Strait is increasing, and given the cultural, ecological, and economic importance of the region, the potential consequences of an accident—and the need for responsible, proactive measures—are high.
The Yup’ik, Iñupiat, and Saint Lawrence Island Yup’ik who live in the region have a deep knowledge of its ecosystem and diverse wildlife. The way of life and cultural well-being of indigenous Arctic residents are inextricably connected to the health of the marine environment.
The expansion of Arctic marine shipping operations is due in large part to natural resource development made possible by diminishing sea ice and the region’s growing ties to the global economy, trends that are expected to continue. Although shipping activity is less than in the most industrialized areas of the world, the capacity to provide aid and support for vessels in the strait is minimal. Extreme weather conditions—high seas, strong winds, freezing temperatures, dense fog, and floating ice—in these remote waters make responding to an oil spill or other accident extremely challenging.
The growth of shipping in these rough and poorly charted U.S. Arctic waters makes it critical to develop appropriate standards of care, or “rules of the road,” for vessel traffic. In May 2015, the International Maritime Organization adopted the environmental provisions of the Polar Code to strengthen the requirements for ships operating in this region. When the code takes effect in 2017, vessels will have to meet certain maritime rules, including limits on dumping trash near land or sea ice and on discharging oil, oily waste, or noxious materials.
The Polar Code is a good start, but stronger standards of care are needed to adequately protect the region. Dumping from ships should be restricted in all Arctic waters year round, and heavy fuel oil used to power vessels or carried as cargo should be banned because it can persist in the environment and is difficult to remove from the water. Other important solutions include vessel routing measures, improved safety communication systems, emergency prevention and preparedness, and consistent and meaningful community involvement.