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The specter of Arctic shipping

Posted Dec. 14, 2012 / Posted by: John Kaltenstein

Two recent articles outline well some of the harms that Arctic shipping, and shipping more generally, poses to the environment.  Rick Steiner, a former professor at the University of Alaska, writes, in particular, about shipping through the Unimak Pass of the Aleutian Island chain, as well as the Bering Strait.  He argues that not enough safeguards have been put in place along the Aleutians in the eight years since the grounding of the Selendang Ayu that killed six and spilled nearly 350,000 gallons of fuel.  Steiner and others in a group named the Shipping Safety Partnership have called for, among other things, better ship-tracking, ocean rescue tugs, increased liability regimes, and the establishment of navigational measures such as Areas to be Avoided for Arctic and Aleutian shipping.  Despite some positive steps to improve safety, many critical protections have not yet been implemented.  And with shipping through the Aleutians expected to increase substantially in the coming years, real progress needs to be made.  Friends of the Earth believes the amount of ship traffic carrying coal and Canadian tar sands through the Unimak Pass could rise fivefold within five years.  Furthermore, liquefied natural gas traffic out of British Columbia to Asia via the Aleutians could equal 900 ship trips a year alone. 

An upsurge in shipping also presents another problem.  As detailed by William Broad in the New York Times, the din of shipping noise in the world’s oceans is intensifying.  In many areas the noise can interfere with the communications of whales, impacting foraging and breeding.  While voluntary guidelines are being developed at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to help quiet ships, in parts of the Arctic that are relatively peaceful the introduction of ships and ship noise could have significant consequences, such as pushing bowhead whales farther offshore, and thus imperil the success of Native subsistence hunts.  Moreover, the presence of more vessels could result in greater numbers of ship strikes on whale populations that are already vulnerable—and, in many cases, protected under federal statutes like the Endangered Species Act. 

Arctic shipping is heating up—the Northern Sea Route alone, along the Russian Arctic coast, saw nearly 12 times as much traffic this year as 2010—and more must be accomplished to ensure that it is safe and environmentally responsible.  In 2013, Friends of the Earth will be focused on making sure much, in fact, gets done to protect the Arctic and its inhabitants, whether it be through the IMO for the Polar Code (where our federation maintains a seat), the Coast Guard’s Bering Strait shipping evaluation, or the risk assessment process for the waters along the Aleutian Islands.  It promises to be a busy year. 

Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

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