The Bering Strait Region: One Step Closer to Safer Shipping in the Arctic

I’ve just returned to Alaska from a very successful meeting in London where the international community discussed important measures that mitigate potential safety and environmental risks of increasing vessel traffic in the Arctic. I’m excited to share with you that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will continue to work towards implementing two-way shipping routes and areas to be avoided (ATBAs) for the Bering Strait region. Both these measures will help safeguard this important region from the increased dangers posed by increased shipping.

The Bering Strait region

Located between Alaska and Russia, the Bering Strait is the only marine gateway between the icy Arctic and the Pacific Ocean. The northern Bering Sea region is central to the food security of many indigenous residents of Western Alaska, as its waters provide habitat for an astonishing abundance of fish, birds and marine mammals. At its narrowest point, the strait is only 53 miles wide. But as Arctic sea ice continues to melt at unprecedented rates, more and more ships are traveling through this region. With increasing ship traffic comes more noise and water pollution, and a higher risk of ship strikes on whales and damaging oil spills—including spills of toxic and long-lasting heavy fuel oil.

Two-way vessel traffic routes

Last week the IMO considered a joint U.S. and Russia proposal to establish two-way vessel traffic routes through the ecologically rich Bering Strait. While focused primarily on maritime safety, by encouraging ships to travel in known, well-charted regions significantly offshore, the designation of these routes also enhances environmental protection by reducing the risk of vessel incidents—incidents that may endanger lives, lead to devastating oil spills, or impact the subsistence way of life of local communities.

Areas to be avoided

Three ATBAs in the northern Bering Sea were also considered for approval. As the name implies, “Areas to be Avoided” are used to help ensure that vessels stay away from areas of the ocean that may be especially dangerous for navigation. These ATBAs warn vessels to steer clear of three islands in the region (St. Lawrence, Nunavik and King Island) that contain dangerous shoal waters on their coasts, are environmentally sensitive and are important to subsistence activities.


After speeches in support of the measures by the U.S., Russia, and Ocean Conservancy (as part of the Clean Shipping Coalition) and its non-governmental organizational partners, a group of experts reviewed the safety, navigation efficiency and environmental protection merits of the two-way routes and ATBAs. After careful consideration, the experts approved the requested measures, with a reduction in the size of the St. Lawrence ATBA.

The U.S. originally proposed an ATBA that would have both increased navigational safety and protected marine habitat in a large area south of St. Lawrence Island. Unfortunately, the IMO declined to include the greater extent of these southern waters when it approved the St. Lawrence Island ATBA. Despite the ecological importance of the area, some IMO members felt that it was inappropriate to designate such a large area in the absence of more direct concerns about navigation and ship safety.

Although the St. Lawrence Island ATBA could have been bigger, the subcommittee’s approval of three new ATBAs in the Bering Strait region is a major step forward. While the joint U.S. Russia proposal and the routing measures have not yet officially been adopted by the IMO, their consideration and approval at last week’s meeting were vital in ensuring their most likely final approval in May.

A bright outlook for the Bering Strait

I left London with a sense of accomplishment in knowing that the Bering Strait region is now a step closer to implementing ships routing measures that will better protect the safety of mariners, subsistence activities, and the marine environment of the Bering Strait region. Stay tuned for more information on the potential final approval of these measures in May 2018!

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