Expansion of Maritime Activity in the Bering Strait Region: Mitigating Existing and Future Risks
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The Bering Strait region supports some of the most remarkable wildlife in the world, which in turn has supported subsistence cultures for thousands of years. The region is a breeding, feeding, and migratory habitat for many birds, fish, and marine mammals, including a number of endangered species. Thousands of Siberian Yupik, Central Yupik, Chukchi, and Inupiaq people reside in the Bering Strait region, leading lives that are closely tied to the bounty of the sea.
The expansion of maritime activity presents new, elevated risks to this ecosystem—from oil spills, groundings, and collisions with hunters and marine mammals to increased water, air, and noise pollution. Stakeholders, particularly Bering Strait communities, have the opportunity to play a formative role in shaping the management of this activity and, by doing so, determining the future of this region.
In this webinar, experts discussed the current situation in the region, future vessel traffic trends, increasing threats, and existing gaps in preparedness and response. The webinar also considered possible measures that could help ensure safe and environmentally sound shipping, from strong communications to maritime traffic management tools and industry area-specific practices. WWF's new publication, Safety at the Helm: A Plan for Smart Shipping through the Bering Strait, was referenced during the event.
“When I speak to my children, I always remind them, ‘You are first Yupik before anything else. You are Yupik first before you are an American citizen. And the people of Chukotka, of Russia, those are our friends and relatives. So never let that border define who you are.”
“The yuk [person] woke up. The animals looked at him and said, ‘You are yuk. You are Yupik. We have decided together as animals that we will give ourselves to you, as long as you respect us … as long as you respect us, we will give ourselves to you. You must not waste, and you must share.’ And that’s the story of the first yuk. So that’s how much important the Bering Sea is to my people of St. Lawrence Island.”
“Especially in the wintertime, about 90 percent of our people are unemployed, so therefore we rely heavily on the animals from the Bering Sea. And we as Yupik people believe that the Bering Sea is alive. We believe as Yupik people that everything is alive, and everything has a spirit. So we must treat these environments and these places with a lot of respect because they take care of us as human beings.”
“Learning from other marine casualties, we can prevent and intervene with information, with time, and capabilities. So if we can track vessels and know when they’re in distress. We can track to make sure they’re complying with the distance offshore to be safe. They can comply with speed limits. Then we have a better chance of minimizing adverse impacts.”
“This is a joint effort. Obviously we look, Russian colleagues are across the other side of the strait. We need stronger domestic but also bilateral. And the tools exist right now. Right now below me there’s people 24 hours a day, in my office, monitoring ships, and we can share all that information with our colleagues across the other side, with the Russians.”
“We’re not gonna put the standard buoys or Coast Guard boats or lighthouses, they don’t work up in the arctic, because ice and other concentrations and other issues. But there’s a technology now that can, actually, manage traffic.”
“When we’re talking about mitigating risk, prevention is always preferred to response, but we have to be ready to respond, and the heartbeat of response is planning. And not just planning in a bubble or in isolation, but planning which includes stakeholders, the community involved, tribal involvement. This community-level involvement is key to effective preparedness to respond.”
“We are doing a lot of work to look to the future, to understand what the risks are, and to put into place real prevention initiatives to ensure that we address those.”
“We’re very much in a sort of crawl, walk, run approach right now that may take several years for us to get to an actual full-scale exercise deployment of personnel and equipment and vessels out into that area to practice the plan that we currently have.”
“The Bering Strait is also an incredible place of vibrant biodiversity. This is one of the super, marine mammal superhighways of the world, where 18,000 Bowhead whales, and thousands of Gray whales and Beluga whales and Polar bears walruses and seals, millions of birds are coming every year because there is so much food here, and the environment is so rich and vibrant. And collectively, all of us on the speaker panel and those of us listening have a responsibility now to make sure it stays that way.”
“This has been an area of collaboration and cooperation across the boundary. It really takes two countries to ensure that this trans-boundary region will remain a safe and clean and healthy place for communities to continue to thrive.”
“We’re not quite there with the fully integrated, bilateral ERMA [Emergency Response Management Application], and a bilateral tool. So, there’s still some work to do, but I think we’re going in the right direction.”
“In our opinion it’s very important to indicate the most appropriate equipment which is used in this area for mitigation of risk, of pollution incident.”
“The most important also: to put into force measures for reduced risk, not simply ban because it’s very discussable what’s more general, HFO [Heavy Fuel Oil] spill or distillate spill?”
“It will be better don’t establish so-called sunset provisions and now it’s open … in the guidelines, Russian Federation proposed to establish specified equipment which should be in the port of arctic states to guarantee effective oil spill response separation. And such equipment also should be on both of special vessels … also for guarantees effective and timely reply to any pollution incident.”
Dr. Natalia Kutaeva
Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders. Read more