The Seventeenth U.S. Coast Guard District has concluded the Port Access Route Study (PARS) of the Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait and Bering Sea and announces the availability of the report for comment.
In 2014, following a 2010 report, the Coast Guard announced its intent to expand the study area to include most of the Bering Sea and proposed a two-way route as a vessel routing system in order to reduce the risk of marine casualties and increase the efficiency of vessel traffic in the region. The Coast Guard received 29 comments to the 2014 report which it has now considered.
Regional stakeholders noted that subsistence activities were of paramount concern, and local areas used for subsistence activity needed protection from the potential impacts of shipping. Comments from both subsistence interests and maritime professionals cautioned the Coast Guard against adopting more restrictive Traffic Separation Schemes. Traffic Separation Schemes alter the obligations for some vessels engaged in collision avoidance maneuvers under the International Regulations for Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLREGS). Under the COLREGS Navigation Rules (Rule 10), vessels less than 20 meters in length are not to impede the safe passage of power driven vessels following a traffic lane in a traffic separation scheme. Adopting a Traffic Separation Scheme in the Bering Strait could potentially limit the currently unrestricted access to marine areas where subsistence activities occur from smaller vessels.
Professional mariners also noted that due to winter ice cover in the Bering Strait and Northern Bering Sea, routing measures that afforded the maximum flexibility for vessels to avoid ice were desirable. Several comments noted the lack of adequate charts and current hydrographic survey information as important concerns. Despite being well offshore, depths in the eastern Bering Sea and Bering Strait are quite shallow.
The latest report now includes additional waypoints along the proposed route and Areas to Be Avoided.
Andrew Hartsig, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic Program, said: “Ocean Conservancy applauds the U.S. Coast Guard for recommending measures designed to advance safety and environmental protection in the Arctic, including a designated route for vessel traffic and a series of Areas to be Avoided, to ensure that vessels steer clear of dangerous or sensitive areas.”
The region that is ecologically significant and utterly irreplaceable, he says. The Bering Strait is home to Alaska Native peoples whose entire way of life depends on a clean and healthy ocean. It is the only marine connection between the Arctic and Pacific oceans. This is a critical migratory corridor for marine mammals. Almost the entire western Arctic population of bowhead whales and Pacific walruses migrate through this narrow body of water between the U.S. and Russia every year. The region is also vital for marine birds. An estimated 12 million seabirds nest or forage in the area annually.
“In addition to its importance for wildlife, the Bering Strait is a pinch-point for vessel traffic moving between the Pacific and Arctic oceans. The Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the planet and has experienced a dramatic decline in sea ice coverage. As sea ice melts, the region is becoming more accessible to vessel traffic. And to travel between the Arctic and the Pacific, all that traffic must pass through the Bering Strait.”
In conducting the Port Access Route Study, the Coast Guard recognized that increasing commercial vessel traffic brings new risks and potential impacts to the region like vessel accidents, ship strikes on marine mammals, conflicts with subsistence users and oil spills. The risks are compounded by the presence of seasonal sea ice, strong currents, poor charting and harsh weather conditions.
“Given the region’s remoteness and lack of response resources, the results of a serious vessel accident—especially a large oil spill—could be catastrophic,” says Hartsig.
More information on the report and how to comment is available here.