In the Arctic, Increased Vessel Traffic Brings Concerns Over Pollution

Pew recommends ways to limit discharge of garbage, sewage, other waste into sensitive ecosystem

In the Arctic, Increased Vessel Traffic Brings Concerns Over Pollution
Bearing Sea
Vessels traveling the northern Bering Sea must navigate three sets of rules depending on their size, type, and distance from the coast.
Melanie Smith U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

While some of the vessels, which are led by large cargo ships, tugboats, and research ships, provide important services for people, science, and commerce, they also present serious and growing challenges, especially given that the traffic is forecast to continue increasing.

The health of this marine environment is inextricably connected to the way of life and cultural well-being of the region’s Indigenous peoples. The Bering Sea area has been an ecological, cultural, and economic center for Yup’ik, Cup’ik, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and Inupiaq peoples for millennia. The northern Bering Sea also supports local commercial fisheries for herring, crab, halibut, and salmon.

Yup'ik family
A Yup’ik family shares salmon at home in Newtok, Alaska. The health of the Bering Sea ecosystem directly affects their way of life.
Andrew Burton Getty Images

Unfortunately, the rules that govern vessel waste management in the region are complex and vary greatly depending on ship type, size, place of origin, destination, and distance from shore.

A new analysis from The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Vessel Waste a Growing Challenge in the Northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait,” examines four major sources of waste discharged into the sea and provides the following recommendations for international, U.S., and Alaskan authorities to improve regulation, monitoring, and enforcement:

  1. Increase accountability for onboard trash record-keeping and enforce rules that limit garbage, particularly plastics, entering the water.
  2. Require that all vessels treat sewage to a high, consistent standard before discharging; prohibit releases of untreated sewage into the marine environment; and mandate more frequent monitoring, testing, and discharge reporting.
  3. Regulate grey water as a pollutant, similar to sewage, that must be treated on board before discharge.
  4. Prohibit oil and oily water discharges from ships in all northern Bering Sea waters.

This analysis provides valuable information and a resource for Alaskan coastal communities concerned with the health of the marine environment. The recommendations provide a starting point for Alaskans and international, federal, and state policymakers to work together to limit marine pollution in the vulnerable Arctic ecosystem.

Eleanor Huffines leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. Arctic work from Anchorage, Alaska.

Bering Sea
Bering Sea
Issue Brief

Vessel Waste a Growing Challenge in the Northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait

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Issue Brief

The northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait region has been an ecological, cultural, and economic center for Yup’ik, Cup’ik, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and Inupiaq peoples for millennia. But in recent years, confluence of factors, including less sea ice and more trade and resource development, has spurred a rapid increase in vessel traffic in the region, led by large cargo ships, tugs, and research vessels, and is forecast to continue to grow.