WCS North America

Commercial Shipping in Arctic Beringia

Over the last few decades, arctic waters have become increasingly ice-free during the summer and fall. The lengthening of the open-water season has led to new industrial developments, including oil and gas activities and a rising number of large maritime vessels transiting either the Northern Sea Route over the Russian Arctic from Europe, or the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic from the Atlantic. Whichever route is being used, the only gateway to the Pacific is through the Bering Strait—an important migratory pathway for marine mammals. In spring and fall for example, almost the entire bowhead whale and walrus populations migrate through this narrow strait. In addition to the risk of ship strikes and large oil spills to which there is little capability to respond, large vessels also emit low-frequency noises that can disrupt important behavioral functions for whales and potentially impair their ability to communicate and navigate. Degradation of the acoustic habitat can have consequences not only for whales, but also for other marine mammals such as walrus, and even fish. In addition to the conservation concerns, local communities are concerned about these impacts and how they will impact their food security.


    WCS intends to be a leader in providing critical information and policy recommendations of value at the local, national, and international arenas on arctic shipping issues by promoting research on the effects of development on fragile Arctic ecosystems and by supporting Alaska natives as they seek to actively protect the health and safety of the marine mammal populations they rely on. 


    Vessel Routing Analysis

    WCS is working with the Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands (ABSI) Landscape Conservation Cooperative to assess shipping routes in the northern Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea. Data from satellite and ground-based Automatic Identification System (AIS) receivers is informing our work, which will be used to guide vessel policies in the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea. 

    Community Oil Spill Response

    WCS hosted the Community Oil Spill Response in Bering and Anadyr Straits workshop in 2013  to both educate and support individuals and communities seeking to realize their desired roles in oil spill response. The workshop gathered spill response experts, local practitioners, hunters, and other stakeholders to discuss the viability of various approaches to spill response in the Bering Strait region and provide recommendations regarding the current needs, opportunities, and challenges to developing increased community oil spill response capacity in Alaska and Chukotka. This workshop, with a focus on the Bering Strait region, also provides insights for what might be done elsewhere in the Arctic.

    Best Management of Shipping Practices in the Northwest Passage

    As ice recedes, ship traffic through the Beaufort Sea  is set to increase as a result of mineral extraction, tourism, fishing, and shipping. There is huge potential for noise, injury, and oil spill impacts on marine mammals. Our goal is to fill the gaps in management capacity to better inform best shipping practices. We employ passive acoustic monitoring along likely shipping routes to assess the timing and intensity of area usage by marine mammals. The areas of greatest concern are chokepoints where ships and marine mammals are most likely to overlap. In the western Canadian Arctic, these are Amundsen Gulf, Prince of Wales Straight and McClure Straight.


    Over the past three years WCS has led efforts that are now culminating in the establishment of an Arctic Waterway Safety Committee – a multi-stakeholder group of waterway users working together to establish best practices for all traffic including international vessels in the Arctic waters around Alaska. Related to this, we have worked with the Coast Guard and NOAA on two very important initiatives to help ensure the safety of marine mammals.  First, we learned that the Coast Pilot and on the Navigation Charts for the Arctic didn’t have any information about locations and timing for mammal aggregations and indigenous maritime activities. This is now included in the 2013 Coast Pilot and will be in the upcoming edition of the paper Chart for the Alaskan Arctic Coast. 

    Latest Publications

    All Arctic Beringia Publications >>

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    WCS Arctic Beringia
    P.O. Box 751110 Fairbanks, AK 99775
    (907) 750-9991

    Key Staff

    Martin Robards
    Arctic Beringia Coordinator