Safety at the Helm: A Plan for Smart Shipping Through the Bering Strait
The Bering Strait, a waterway between the United States and Russia, is a marine wildlife "super highway" that supports amazing animals, from beluga whales to spectacled eiders and king salmon. As warming temperatures melts Arctic sea ice, increasing commercial ship traffic through the Strait is adding stress and risk of accidents to an already rapidly shifting environment.
WWF has five recommended actions that the United States should take to protect the Bering Strait.
- Share information in real-time
Knowledge is power and real-time information can protect people and nature. Expanding implementation of digital navigation technology on ships can aid response to accidents, prevent movement through protected areas, and keep Indigenous communities informed. One of the most valuable knowledge sharing tools is an Automated Information System (AIS) that can track position, speed, and the course of ships. This technology increases compliance and is vital to enforcing the following four recommendations. It can also be used to share up-to-date and real-time information about hazards, weather, wildlife, local boats, and other data relevant to maritime safety.
- Improve traffic management
Shipping and cruise traffic in the region has almost doubled in the last 10 years as summer sea ice melts. That much traffic needs organizing. The US should adopt a modern, internationally accepted sea traffic management process for the Strait in coordination with Russia. A sea traffic coordination center would track ships and ensure they are safely passing through the area in designated two-way routes. Dynamic protection of the environment, regular monitoring of ships and wildlife, and minimized conflict with subsistence hunters will all improve with management and officials can update crews in real-time with current news on all movement through the region.
- Protect wildlife and indigenous communities
The Bering Strait is one of WWF's highest Arctic conservation priorities. The US government needs to work with coastal communities, and conservation groups in Alaska, as well as key entities in Russia to establish Areas to be Avoided, especially around the islands of Big and Little Diomede, located in the center of the Strait and split between the US and Russia. These islands have especially sensitive ecological and indigenous value. As the Bering Strait region rapidly warms, flexible protected areas will also be needed to protect wildlife as they move throughout their changing environment.
- Create area-specific industry practices
As ship traffic increases, so can wildlife injury or boat collisions, and discharge of sewage, garbage, and grey water, ending in major damage to the environment. Rules for ships regarding speed, discharge, and designated routes need to be put in place and made specific to this area to ensure safety for all. These measures also need to be flexible to account for real-time changes in the environment. The industry can act quickly and introduce simple solutions like slow speed limits, which will give whales in the area more time to react and move away from ships, allow ships to move away from each other, reduce noise pollution, and make ships more fuel efficient.
- Avoid and be prepared for disasters and emergencies
Alaskans have learned from experience the long-lasting damage an oil spill can have on natural and human communities. Even today, the impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 are still being felt. The Bering Strait can’t take an Exxon Valdez-size spill when the environment is already increasingly stressed from climate change. Above all, the most important step is to implement accident prevention measures. At the same time, the US needs to improve its domestic capabilities, as well as develop a plan for strong emergency prevention and response in collaboration with Russia, so that both countries can work together to respond to spills and collisions rapidly and efficiently.
Now is the time to work with all stakeholders to implement these recommendations and protect one of the Arctic’s most biologically productive environments and vital migratory corridors. By collaborating around the Arctic Circle and embracing safety measures and technology, we can keep the region as stable as possible for as long as possible.
To foster engagement and collaboration, WWF organized a science session within the 2021 Alaska Marine Science Symposium for Russian and American researchers to present their work across the Strait, available to watch back in English and Russian.
Learn more about wildlife that live in the Bering Strait and WWF’s full shipping recommendations through the PDFs below.