Ocean Currents

5 Things About the Aleutian Islands Waterways Safety Committee

Oil tanker in Prince William Sound
© Patrick J. Endres/

This past Wednesday, I took part in the first full meeting of the Aleutian Islands Waterways Safety Committee in Anchorage, Alaska. Here are five things you should know about this new group:

  1. The Committee is brand new. It was established late in 2017 to provide a forum for mariners and other stakeholders to exchange information and to establish best practices that will promote safety in the region. In time, the Committee will develop and disseminate a waterways safety plan for the Aleutian Islands region. Committee members include a wide range of stakeholders who represent many different maritime interest groups, including Alaska Native interests, shipping industry interests, commercial fishing interests and conservation organizations (which are represented by Ocean Conservancy).

  2. The Committee is the largest of its kind in the country. Many areas in the lower-48 have “Harbor Safety Committees” to facilitate development of best practices for local marine areas. These can be highly effective—but they generally cover a pretty limited area. There’s also an Arctic Waterways Safety Committee that covers a much bigger area. It encompasses U.S. portions of the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea, as well as much of the northern U.S. Bering Sea. But the Aleutian Islands Waterways Safety Committee covers an even bigger area, which extends north and south of the entire U.S. portion of the 1200-mile Aleutian Island chain, including the Pribilof Islands.

  3. The area covered by the Committee forms part of the North Pacific Great Circle Route, a busy shipping corridor between North America and East Asia. Recently, more than 4,500 vessels per year travel through Unimak Pass, a gap between two of the islands in the Aleutian archipelago. Many of these are large, deep-draft vessels like container ships and bulk carriers that may carry hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel. The waters surrounding the Aleutian islands also have an incredible abundance of marine life. They host a rich diversity of fish, birds and marine mammals; important subsistence fisheries; and some of the largest and most valuable commercial fisheries in the country.
  4. The Committee has its roots in a shipping disaster. In 2004, the M/V Selendang Ayu ran aground in the Aleutians, costing six people their lives and releasing roughly 350,000 gallons of fuel into the water. That tragedy led to the initiation of a comprehensive risk assessment that involved a broad range of stakeholders. Upon its conclusion, the risk assessment recommended, among other things, continuing to convene waterway users to share information and promote best practices in the region. This recommendation eventually led to the founding of the Aleutian Islands Waterways Safety Committee.
  5. The Committee has a great website that hosts information about the Committee, its members, and past and upcoming meetings. It also hosts relevant documents and maps. As the Committee launches into its work, more information will be added to the site.

There was a lot of enthusiasm in the room during the Committee’s first meeting, and I’m optimistic it will be a productive and efficient forum to establish best practices that will improve safety and better protect the marine environment in the Aleutian Islands region.  

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