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WWF Calls for Risk Assessment, Greater Protections as Bering Sea Disaster Grows

Washington - World Wildlife Fund today called on federal and Alaskan officials to follow up the Selendang Ayu wreck and fuel spill with a risk assessment of shipping routes in the Bering Sea, including the Great Circle Route, along which the spill took place. It is the primary shipping route between the west coast of North America and Asia. Among other things, the assessment should consider additional capacity for safety and habitat protection, and lead to the designation of Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas around ecologically important areas in the Bering Sea, which would require shippers to take special precautions.

"We extend our condolences to the families of the six crew members lost in this tragic incident and commend the heroic efforts of the Coast Guard and others involved in the rescue and clean-up," said Margaret Williams, director of WWF's Bering Sea program. "This tragedy highlights the risk of locating one of the busiest shipping routes in the world in an area rich in wildlife and prone to extreme weather conditions. We now need to evaluate the entire Bering Sea to make sure that there are sufficient response measures to deal with these kinds of incidents in the future and that we have regulations in place to minimize their risk of happening again."

The fuel spill off Unalaska Island threatens an area identified in 1997 by WWF and The Nature Conservancy as one of the highest priorities for conservation in the Bering Sea. The Sea provides the U.S. with more than half its seafood. In addition to the likely impacts on the important commercial fisheries of the region, the spill is likely to take a toll on local subsistence fishing and sensitive wildlife. "We must not ignore the urgent wake up call this tragedy sends," said Williams. "It's time for action to protect resources our nation and the world cannot afford to squander."

Last year, spurred by a previous oil disaster, WWF testified before the Senate Commerce Committee urging for the establishment of Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSA) in U.S. waters to protect environmentally and economically sensitive areas from oil spills. There is a PSSA around the Florida Keys, and six other areas outside the U.S. The designation requires the use of special precautions such as avoiding ecologically vulnerable areas, using vessel traffic monitoring systems, traffic separation schemes, compulsory pilotage, and escort towing of tankers to and from ports. All of these strategies could be applicable along the Great Circle Route.

Fuel from the Selendang Ayu has reportedly reached beaches important for endangered Steller sea lions, threatened Steller and spectacled eiders, and other seabird species, along with harbor seals, and sea otters. The thousands of birds that nest nearby the spill may be tempted to feed off oil-killed fish and other animals as well as the oil-contaminated soybeans spilling from the ship. A longer-term concern is the possibility that rats, typically present on such freighters, could reach shore. Rats are rapacious predators of ground nesting birds.

"Unalaska, and the Aleutians in general, contain critical habitat for many kinds of wildlife. The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge needs better protection from shipping and more resources to prevent and respond to situations like this spill," said Williams.

As the Arctic pack ice retreats due to the warming effects of climate change expansion of shipping routes in the northern Bering Sea increases chance the for accidents of this kind. "That's a chance we can't afford to take," added Williams. "Marine environments worldwide are in decline. Let's act on this tragic reminder that we need to do more to protect them."

For More Information

  • Aleutians Subarea Contingency Plan
  • Aleutians Subarea Contingency Plan (PDF format)