Coast Guard Defines Bering Strait Shipping Lane

Proposed Bering Strait lanes and separation zone

Published Nov 18, 2015 7:14 PM by The Maritime Executive

In line with the U.S. Coast Guard leadership’s call for better Arctic waterway management, the agency has announced a detailed proposal for a four-mile wide commercial shipping lane through the Bering Sea.

The agency has been working on the Port Access Route Study for the Bering Strait since 2010 and expects to complete it by next summer. The program includes new surveys by NOAA and USCG vessels, and in addition to a route it could include a VTS system and traffic separation scheme for the strait.

Little traffic passes that far north at moment, except for research vessels, cargo ships serving northern Alaska communities, and, for the first time, a Chinese naval battle group in 2015. The large vessel transit count through the Bering Strait came to only 340 voyages by 120 ships last year, but the Coast Guard wants to get out in front of environmental or safety concerns.

The USCG also wants to minimize risk in a region of limited resources. “We don't have good response capabilities. We don't have a good salvage response up there,” said Lt. Kody Stitz, a Coast Guard project officer involved in planning the route.

The USCG has had problems with incident response in Alaska before. In 2004, the freighter Selendang Ayu ran aground and broke up on Unalaska Island, spilling some 60,000 tons of soybeans and 350,000 gallons of fuel. The remote location and harsh conditions hampered rescue and salvage efforts.

Environmental advocates want to ensure that the proposed route will adequately protect sensitive areas, like island bird colonies, and migratory species like bowhead, right and gray whales.

The Northwest Passage is not the only recent development in Arctic shipping. The IMO has recently released the final edition of its Polar Code regulations, and in the eastern hemisphere, Russia is planning a fully developed Northern Sea Route (NSR) from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Over 50 vessels used the NSR in 2014.

Beginning in 2017, a consortium of VLNG operators expect to use Russia's “Suez of the North” NSR with a fleet of icebreaking tankers, carrying gas from Total's Yamal Peninsula LNG facility to Europe in the winter and East Asia in the summer.