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

How garbage, sewage, and other pollutants are generated and regulated— and what can be done better


Vessel Waste a Growing Challenge in the Northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait
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This brief was updated on Oct. 23, 2018, to clarify the diet of Indigenous peoples in the Bering Strait region and on April 19, 2019, to explain U.S. sewage regulations and reflect the new federal law on incidental vessel discharges.


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. It provides food and spiritual and economic well-being for Indigenous people today. These waters also facilitate vital tug and barge deliveries to areas that are not connected by roads or frequented by airplanes. But in recent years, a 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.

Many of these vessels provide important services for people, science, and commerce in the region, but they also present serious and growing challenges, including the production of large quantities of waste. Ocean vessels can generate up to 40 different types of waste while at sea, such as air emissions, garbage, sewage, machinery lubricant, ballast water, and deck runoff. Without effective management, this vessel waste can have significant negative impacts on people and the marine environment.

Unfortunately, existing rules governing the production and handling of waste are complex and often differ depending on a vessel’s type, size, place of origin, destination, and distance from shore. To reduce ocean pollution, key regulations should be strengthened and combined with better monitoring and enforcement.

This brief examines four major sources of vessel waste that can be discharged into the sea: garbage, sewage, grey water, and oily water mixes. It assesses their potential effects on the northern Bering Sea’s sensitive marine environment; reviews how they are regulated across three jurisdictional authorities: international, the United States federal government, and Alaska; and provides recommendations to improve regulation, monitoring, and enforcement.

The northern Bering Sea region

The northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait region is ecologically and culturally important, and the sea ice is a defining element of the region’s social-ecological system. The movement of water and ice over the shallow shelf supports a highly productive marine ecosystem, which is fueled by tiny algae that grow on the underside of the sea ice during abundant spring sunshine. This region is host to one of the planet’s largest marine migrations, which includes bowhead and beluga whales, Pacific walruses, bearded and ice seals, and seabirds.

The health of this marine environment is inextricably connected to the way of life and cultural well-being of the Yup’ik, Cup’ik, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and Inupiaq peoples. These communities hunt and gather marine mammals, fish, mollusks, seabirds and their eggs, and ocean plants. Their strong and ancient cultural value of respect and caring for the marine environment is reflected in their year-round preparation for marine mammal hunting, which includes teaching, singing, and dancing.1 The northern Bering Sea also supports local commercial fisheries for herring, crab, halibut, and salmon, and provides corridors and connections between communities.

However, the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of elsewhere on the planet, causing drastic changes to the thickness, extent, and timing of sea ice and the marine food web.2 These shifts, in turn, affect people’s relationships with the ecosystem, such as by altering when certain species can be harvested as migration patterns change.3 Less sea ice also means the region is increasingly navigable by more types of ships and for longer periods. Indigenous communities have raised concerns about the impacts of rising vessel traffic on this already stressed environment and their access to healthy traditional foods such as whole crabs, including the consumption of raw juice; clams harvested from walrus stomachs; and fresh bearded seals.4

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

Increasing vessel traffic

Vessels have long traversed Arctic waters to deliver goods and fuel to western Alaska communities that are not connected by roads or frequented by airplanes. But the scale of ship activity has grown rapidly in recent years in response to a variety of factors, including increased resource development, international trade relationships, research interests, and a longer navigation season: The waters of the northern Bering Sea are ice-free from about June 1 to Oct. 31.5 Between 2008 and 2015, the region experienced a 145 percent increase in vessel traffic, led by large cargo vessels, research vessels, tugs, and even visits from large cruise ships,6 although fishing vessels continue to account for the largest share of traffic in the southernmost waters of the region. Every ship that traverses Bering waters includes machinery and crew—and some also carry passengers—all of which generate waste, including garbage, sewage, grey water (produced from washing facilities), and oily mixes.

Vessel traffic is projected to increase, so to ensure the long-term health of the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait’s ecosystem and food security for the region’s residents, harmful waste impacts must be understood and mitigated.

Jurisdictional authority in the northern Bering Sea region

Shipping rules are vast and complex, and they vary depending on where and how far from shore a vessel is sailing as well as its origin, destination, size, cargo, and activity (fishing, passenger, etc.), among other factors. For each pollutant examined in this brief, the discussion of regulation will consider the role of these authorities.


The International Maritime Organization (IMO)—a United Nations body comprising 174 member states—adopts safety, security, and pollution standards for the international shipping industry. IMO regulation covers each country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends from 12 to as far as 200 nautical miles (nm) from shore. The IMO has no enforcement mechanism; instead, member states are expected to enforce international standards in their waters.

Polar Code

The Polar Code is a set of mandatory regulations created by the IMO specifically to enhance vessel safety and pollution prevention in the harsh and vulnerable waters of the Arctic and Antarctica. In the northern Bering Sea, its boundary starts at 60 degrees north latitude, cutting across Nunivak Island. Ships traveling north of this boundary line must abide by these additional regulations.

Importantly, the code treats sea ice in much the same way that other IMO regulations handle land. For example, general IMO regulations permit discharge of untreated sewage starting at 12 nm from shore; the Polar Code affords this same protection to the ice, prohibiting discharge of untreated sewage within 12 nm of the ice edge or where at least a 10th of the ocean area around the vessel is covered by ice (i.e., 1/10th ice concentration).7 This standard follows the sea ice as shown in Figure 2.

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

United States

The U.S. government regulates ships traveling to or from U.S. locations while in federal waters (3 to 12 nm offshore), an area known as the territorial sea, and may enforce international standards within its EEZ (out to 200 nm from shore). The primary responsibility for setting federal vessel regulations in these waters rests with the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency. Vessel operators are responsible for securing required permits to discharge waste and for documenting certain releases. The Coast Guard may inspect vessels entering ports and review their records for consistency, but direct oversight of ship operations is limited. Vessels have been caught and fined for intentionally bypassing waste treatment systems and falsifying records.8

Ships on international voyages that sail through U.S. waters but do not stop at a U.S. destination are subject to what is known as “innocent passage,” meaning that they are obligated to follow only international rules. In cases when international regulation is not as stringent as U.S. regulation, innocent-passage vessels in U.S. waters may pose an increased risk to regional ecosystems.


The state has independent and superseding jurisdiction over its territorial waters, which extend 3 nm from shore. It has created a limited number of regulations for commercial passenger vessels, particularly cruise ships, in its waters but does not regulate most other vessels (cargo, tug, research, etc.), which follow federal rules even in state waters.


Vessels, crew, and passengers generate garbage through food preparation and scraps, personal belongings, fishing gear, ship parts and maintenance supplies, incinerator ash, and cargo residue. On most vessels, trash is initially sorted by type, with food separated from nonfood waste. The latter is then further sorted, depending on the requirements of the port where the vessel is likely to offload its garbage.


Garbage and marine debris can injure marine life through entanglement, ingestion, and habitat damage; interfere with navigational safety; pose a threat to human health through microplastics and chemicals entering the food chain; and wash ashore, creating a burden for communities.9


As recently as 40 years ago, it was acceptable to throw trash overboard, but since then, new rules have limited garbage releases in an ongoing effort to reduce their impacts on marine environments. Vessels generally are permitted to discharge food waste, but they may either incinerate nonfood waste on board or unload it at a port.


In 1988, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships, better known as MARPOL, went into force, setting rules for reducing garbage impacts from ships. MARPOL includes requirements for disposal of trash, management plans, reception facilities, placards, and record-keeping.10 Ground food can be discharged beyond 3 nm if a vessel is underway. Food that is not ground can be discharged beyond 12 nm from shore. Disposal in the water of plastics and plastic materials, including synthetic ropes and plastic bags, is prohibited.

Polar Code

The code limits food discharges within the covered boundaries. Only ground food can be released, and it must be done at least 12 nm from shore or the ice edge, or in areas with at least a 10th ice concentration.

United States

Federal requirements mirror those of MARPOL in prohibiting disposal of plastic in the water and permitting discharge of food waste and cargo residue that is not easily recovered or harmful to the marine environment only when the vessel is underway and at least 12 nm from land. Ground food waste smaller than 1 inch can be discharged beyond 3 nm.


Disposal of food waste and other types of garbage is prohibited in state waters.

Areas for improvement

Marine debris is a well-known problem in Alaska, and international concern is growing over the breadth of pollution, specially plastics, in the world’s oceans, including the Arctic.11 In April 2018, members of the IMO agreed that more needs to be done to address marine plastic litter, including microplastics;  members will submit proposals for consideration and action by the IMO.


Sewage, also known as blackwater, is generated mostly by people; the more crew and passengers on a vessel, the more sewage is produced. MARPOL defines sewage as drainage and other wastes from any form of toilet; medical premises (dispensary, sick bay, etc.) via wash basins, tubs, and drains; spaces containing live animals; or other wastewater mixed with these drainages.12


Risks from sewage include harm to human health from the bacterium fecal coliform (FC) and to the marine environment from oxygen depletion and nutrient overenrichment. FC is from human and animal feces and, when found in water, may indicate the presence of other disease-causing bacteria or viruses.

Humans can become sick by swimming in polluted water or consuming contaminated shellfish, especially if it is eaten raw. Shellfish (crustaceans, mollusks) are traditionally harvested by communities in the northern Bering Sea region and are known to concentrate FC and other associated pathogens.13

In addition, the nitrogen and phosphorous components of sewage can act as a fertilizer for algae and other plants that can deplete the amount of oxygen in the water available for fish and other marine life. The combination of increased nutrients, depleted oxygen, and warming waters can lead to harmful algal blooms and contamination of shellfish with a toxin that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning of humans and marine mammals.14These large bloom events are on the rise in Arctic waters.15


Most vessels are designed to collect, store, and treat the sewage produced on board. However, treatment systems and rules vary depending on the type and size of vessel, how many people are on board, and where the ship is transiting. Sewage that has been treated for discharge is called “effluent.”


International regulations require onboard treatment of sewage discharged within 12 nm from shore. Effluent must not contain more than 100 FC per 100 milliliters (ml) of water.16 Untreated, or raw, sewage may be discharged in waters 12 nm from land and beyond. The United States has not ratified these regulations, choosing to create and enforce its own standards. U.S. vessels that sail internationally must comply with both.

Polar Code

Within the code boundary, ships may discharge untreated sewage beyond 12 nm from shore or the ice edge and effluent (containing no more than 100 FC per 100 ml of water) between 3 and 12 nm from land or the ice edge. Cargo vessels and cruise ships built on or after Jan. 1, 2017, must have an approved treatment plant operating at all times and may not discharge untreated sewage.17

United States

Vessels with installed toilets operating in U.S. navigable waters must have a marine sanitation device (MSD). Vessels less than 65 feet long may operate a Type I MSD, which can have up to 1,000 FC per 100 ml of water and no visible floating solids. Larger vessels are required to use Type II or III MSDs: Type II devices must limit effluent to 200 FC per 100 ml and limit suspended solids to 150 milligrams per liter. Type III MSDs are holding tanks. The U.S. has additional regulations—similar to those of Alaska—for vessels capable of carrying 500 or more passengers.18


The state has some of the world’s highest sewage treatment standards for passenger vessels within 3 nm of land. Vessels carrying 250 or more overnight passengers and intending to discharge must receive a permit, treat the sewage to include no more than 40 FC per 100 ml per day, and meet additional requirements for testing, monitoring, and reporting.19 Vessels with 50 to 249 overnight passengers must either meet the federal treatment standard of no more than 200 FC per 100 ml or create a Best Management Practices Plan and have it approved by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.20

Areas for improvement

Discharging raw sewage can harm the marine environment21 but is still allowed in the northern Bering Sea under international rules; the IMO and U.S. should prohibit releases of untreated sewage into the marine environment and require that vessels instead treat sewage before discharging. Alaska has demonstrated that higher standards that reduce the presence of FC in ocean waters and the associated risks are feasible for vessels and enforcement agencies.22 Federal and international regulators should follow suit by requiring both stricter treatment and more frequent monitoring, testing, and reporting of discharges.

Common murres eat small forage fish. People in the region harvest these birds and their eggs.
Stephan Rech

Grey water

Grey water is drainage from showers, sinks, dishwashers, and laundry facilities; it does not include sewage, water from toilets, and waste from hospital areas and cargo holds.23 Grey water is generated by the people and services on a vessel; in general, the more crew and passengers on board, the more grey water produced. Luxury vessels such as cruise ships generate especially large quantities compared with other types of vessels because they are primarily passenger-serving.24 The EPA estimates that cruise ships produce 67 gallons of grey water per person per day, compared with 45 gallons per person per day for other vessel types.25


Grey water can pose risks similar to those from raw sewage; studies have found that it can contain comparable concentrations of FC and oxygen-depleting nutrients and chemicals.26


Ships handle grey water in various ways, including continuously discharging it overboard, storing it in a dedicated tank for later disposal, or piping it into the sewage system to be treated and disposed of with the sewage. Compared with sewage, grey water is very loosely regulated.


Grey water is not recognized as a pollutant in MARPOL. The issue of adding it has been raised by IMO members.

Polar Code

Grey water is not recognized in the Polar Code.

United States

In late 2018, Congress passed the Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act, which tasks the EPA and Coast Guard with developing new regulations to manage vessels’ incidental discharges, including grey water.27 However, until these agencies finalize their new regulations, vessels must continue to follow the requirements set out in the 2013 federal Vessel General Permit, which do not place numerical limits on grey water discharges from vessels, except those with storage capacity traveling farther than 1 nm from land. U.S. rules also mandate that kitchen grease and oils be minimized in grey water and that vessels use phosphate-free and minimally toxic soaps and detergents.28 Additional requirements for large passenger vessels, such as ferries and cruise ships, include monitoring, record-keeping, and reporting responsibilities; mandatory use of shore facilities while in port unless that port treats grey water; no discharge of untreated grey water within 3 nm of shore; and no release of certain chemicals from specialty services such as dry cleaners, photo labs, and medical spaces.29


The state treats grey water like sewage for all passenger vessels in its waters. Vessels capable of carrying 250 or more passengers must ensure that discharges average less than 40 FC per 100 ml of water and comply with requirements for monitoring, testing, and reporting. Vessels for fewer than 250 passengers may submit a Best Management Plan or follow federal standards for secondary treatment.30

Areas for improvement

Grey water can pose risks such as those from sewage and should be recognized and regulated as a pollutant by the IMO.31 The United States should strengthen its standards for grey water treatment.


Vessel machinery and equipment use a variety of lubricating and hydraulic oils that must be changed periodically as part of routine maintenance. Further, small amounts of grease, fuel, and oil from leaks and normal equipment operation mix with water in the bilge (the lowest spot in the ship), creating an oily water mix. Onboard systems pass this oily mix through an oily water separator, which divides it into sludge (waste oil) and oily water. Vessels may store waste oil on board for disposal at a port or burn it in an onboard incinerator. In most areas, the oily water may be discharged.


The consequences of oil contamination for the marine environment are well-documented.32 The type of oil (e.g., marine diesel, heavy fuel oil) and water conditions (e.g., cold, warm, icy, calm, choppy waves) will affect how the oil behaves and its impacts. Light oils, such as gasoline and diesel fuel, evaporate more quickly than heavy oils, such as bunker fuel, which can persist in the environment for months or years. Heavy oils can smother or coat wildlife, causing acute hypothermia in birds and some marine mammals, and other long-term health impacts for marine species.33 These effects may, in turn, harm Indigenous people’s access to traditional foods and contribute to food insecurity.


U.S. and international maritime rules prohibit the discharge of most oil and oily mixtures.


Large ships on international voyages traveling 12 nm or farther from shore must take steps to reduce oil pollution, including protecting fuel tanks from leaks, ruptures, and collisions; segregating ballast water to prevent oil contamination; keeping records of oil processing and discharges; having double hulls when transporting oil as cargo; complying with vessel stability criteria; providing storage tanks for oily water; employing designated pumps and piping systems for oil and oily water; and having approved emergency spill-response plans.34 While underway, ships may discharge only oily water that contains 15 parts per million (ppm) or less of oil.

Polar Code

The code prohibits discharges of oil or oily mixtures from ships within its boundaries, even in state and federal waters (0 to 12 nm). Vessels built before January 2017 operating in Arctic waters for more than 30 days that are unable to meet this requirement have until their first dry dock or major scheduled maintenance period (at approximately 30-month intervals) to come into compliance. Such ships must still treat their oily mixes to meet MARPOL’s 15-ppm standard, while working to meet the additional code standards.35

United States

Federal rules for oily waste are similar to those in MARPOL. Within 12 nm of land, a vessel’s oily water separator must be equipped with a 15-ppm monitor and alarm, and large vessels and oil tankers are required to have an International Oil Pollution Prevention Certificate of compliance. Until the EPA and Coast Guard develop new regulations for incidental vessel discharges, including oily waste, as directed by Congress in the 2018 Coast Guard Authorization Act, vessels will continue to follow the federal Vessel General Permit regulations for discharges from 1 to 3 nm, which allow ships to release oily mixes that meet federal treatment requirements in state waters.36 The U.S. also sets certain design and construction standards for tankers, along with the use of double hulls.


The state does not have specific rules for oily water; vessels follow federal and international standards.

Areas for improvement

Oil in water can harm the marine environment and threaten Indigenous people’s food security.37 Therefore, waters south of the Polar Code boundary would benefit from a complete ban on oily discharges from ships, like the one above 60 degrees north.


Vessel waste presents significant challenges for the health and resiliency of the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait. Indigenous people in the region are intricately connected to the marine ecosystem, and their food security and cultural and traditional practices may be affected by impacts from growing vessel waste streams. To mitigate the potential harms, and reduce the amount of pollution flowing into these ecologically and culturally significant waters, regulators at the international, U.S. federal, and Alaska state levels, in collaboration with Indigenous communities and other stakeholders, should consider the following:

  • Monitor onboard trash and enforce rules limiting marine garbage, particularly plastics. 
  • 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. 
  • Regulate grey water as a pollutant, similar to sewage, that must be treated on board before discharge.  
  • Prohibit oil and oily water discharges from ships south of the Polar Code boundary. 


  1. Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska, “Alaskan Inuit Food Security Conceptual Framework: How to Assess the Arctic From an Inuit Perspective” (2015),
  2. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Arctic Report Card” (2017),
  3. Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska, “Alaskan Inuit Food Security.” 
  4. Kawerak Inc., “Bering Strait Voices on Arctic Shipping: Moving Forward to Protect Alaska Native Ways of Life and the Natural Resources We Rely On” (2016),; Kawerak Inc., “Little Diomede Inupiaq Glossary and Walrus Preparation Guide” (2014),; Bering Sea Elders Group, “Northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait: Food Security” (2016),
  5. U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System, “A 10-Year Projection of Maritime Activity in the U.S. Arctic Region,” prepared by the International Council on Clean Transportation (2015),
  6. United States Coast Guard, “Preliminary Findings—Port Access Route Study: In the Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait, and Bering Sea” (2016),
  7. National Snow and Ice Data Center, “Data: Terminology—Concentration,” accessed Sept. 11, 2018,
  8. U.S. Department of Justice, “Cruise Line Ordered to Pay $40 Million for Illegal Dumping of Oil Contaminated Waste and Falsifying Records,” news release, April 19, 2017, See also U.S. Department of Justice, “Seafood Processing Company and Owner Sentenced to Pay $60K for Dumping Oil and Raw Sewage,” news release, March 21, 2017,
  9. J. Craig George et al., “Frequency of Injuries From Line Entanglements, Killer Whales, and Ship Strikes on Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas Bowhead Whales,” Arctic 70, no. 1 (2017): 37-46,; Richard C. Thompson et al., “Plastics, the Environment, and Human Health: Current Consensus and Future Trends,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 364, no. 1526 (2009): 2153-66,
  10. International Maritime Organization, International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships (MARPOL) (1997).
  11. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Marine Debris in Alaska,” accessed June 27, 2018,; Matthew Taylor, “Record Levels of Plastic Discovered in Arctic Sea Ice,” The Guardian, April 24, 2018,
  12. International Maritime Organization, International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships (MARPOL).
  13. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Environmental Health, Food Safety and Sanitation Program, “Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning,” accessed Aug. 15, 2018,
  14. Ibid.
  15. Kathi A. Lefebvre et al., “Prevalence of Algal Toxins in Alaskan Marine Mammals Foraging in a Changing Arctic and Subarctic Environment,” Harmful Algae 55 (2016): 13-24,
  16. International Maritime Organization, International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships (MARPOL).  
  17. International Maritime Organization, Marine Environment Protection Committee, Resolution MEPC.264(68): International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code) (May 15, 2015),
  18. Code of Federal Regulations, Navigation and Navigable Waters—Marine Sanitation Devices (2001),; Code of Federal Regulations, Protection of Environment—Marine Sanitation Device Standard (2016),
  19. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, “Large Commercial Passenger Vessel Wastewater Discharge General Permit,” Aug. 29, 2014,
  20. Alaska State Legislature, S.B. 3, “An Act Relating to the Regulation of Wastewater Discharge From Small Commercial Passenger Vessels in State Waters; and Providing for an Effective Date” (2017),
  21. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, “Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning.” 
  22. Science Advisory Panel and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, “The Impact of Cruise Ship Wastewater Discharge on Alaska Waters” (2002),
  23. International Maritime Organization, Marine Environment Protection Committee, Resolution MEPC.219(63): 2012 Guidelines for the Implementation of MARPOL Annex V (March 2, 2012),
  24. Environmental Protection Agency, “Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report” (2008),
  25. Environmental Protection Agency, “Graywater Discharges From Vessels,” table 2 (2011),
  26. Environmental Protection Agency, “Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment.”
  27. Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018,
  28. Environmental Protection Agency, “Vessel General Permit for Discharges Incidental to the Normal Operation of Vessels” (2013),
  29. Ibid. 
  30. Alaska State Legislature, S.B. 3, “An Act Relating to the Regulation of Wastewater Discharge From Small Commercial Passenger Vessels in State Waters; and Providing for an Effective Date,”
  31. Environmental Protection Agency, “Vessel General Permit for Discharges Incidental to the Normal Operation of Vessels” (2013),
  32. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Response and Restoration, “How Oil Harms Animals and Plants in Marine Environments,” accessed Aug. 15, 2018,
  33. Ibid.
  34. International Maritime Organization, International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships (MARPOL).
  35. International Maritime Organization, Marine Environment Protection Committee, Resolution MEPC.264(68): International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code).
  36. Environmental Protection Agency, “Vessel General Permit for Discharges.”
  37. Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska, “Bering Strait Regional Food Security Workshop: How to Assess Food Security From an Inuit Perspective—Building a Conceptual Framework on How to Assess Food Security in the Alaskan Arctic” (2014),
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