The Arctic is changing fast: it’s warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the planet, and seasonal sea ice in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas is decreasing in extent, thickness and duration. These changes mean Arctic waters are opening up to more vessel traffic which, if not managed properly, could cause significant impacts.
Fortunately, the U.S. Coast Guard recognized the potential for trouble and began an “Alaskan Arctic Coast Port Access Route Study” to assess current and predicted vessel traffic in the U.S. Arctic and recommend management measures that will improve safety and environmental protection.
The Arctic Ocean can be a harsh and unforgiving place. But it’s also full of life. Arctic waters are home to iconic marine mammals like walruses, bowhead whales and ice-dependent seals. Each summer, millions of seabirds gather in the Arctic to take advantage of its seasonal abundance. Indigenous Iñupiat peoples have lived along the Beaufort and Chukchi sea coasts for thousands of years and continue to rely on healthy ocean waters as a source of food and to sustain traditional cultural practices.
As temperatures warm and sea ice diminishes, the open water season is growing longer and the Arctic is experiencing higher levels of ship traffic. Vessels that use the region include small craft used by Iñupiat hunters, ships and barges associated with community re-supply, tour boats, industry-related vessels, research ships and—increasingly—commercial transit traffic traveling the Northwest Passage.
All these vessels are subject to challenging weather and ocean conditions. The risk of an accident is compounded by the presence of seasonal sea ice, strong currents, adverse weather and inadequate charting. The remoteness of the region—thousands of miles from response capabilities—means that the impacts of a serious vessel accident, especially an oil spill, could be devastating to the marine environment and the people whose lives and livelihoods depend on a healthy ocean. Even without an accident, everyday vessel operations contribute air, water and noise pollution that could have negative impacts on the environment. Increasing vessel traffic can increase the risk of ship strikes, introduction of invasive species or potential interference with subsistence activities.
A network of strong management measures can promote safety, reduce conflicts among waterway users and protect the marine environment from the impacts of vessel traffic. Management options include creating designated traffic routes and specific “no-go zones.” This approach was used successfully in the Bering Strait region. The Coast Guard could consider other management measures as well, including imposing limitations on vessel speed, discharges and icebreaking and implementing rules that bolster protections for nearshore areas and improve communication systems.
As the Coast Guard carries out the Alaskan Arctic Coast Port Access Route Study, it should continue to seek out and incorporate Indigenous knowledge, consult with affected Tribes and seek out input and recommendations from the Iñupiat hunters who have deep knowledge of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Strong collaboration with Indigenous residents will lead to better on-the-water outcomes.
As the Coast Guard itself has recognized, successful vessel traffic management in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas will be a balancing act. But by listening to input from stakeholders and thinking creatively about all the different management tools at its disposal, I’m confident the Coast Guard can identify solutions that will improve safety and reduce risks in U.S. Arctic waters. Join us in encouraging the Coast Guard to chart a responsible path forward in this challenging region.
Stay current in ocean news.
Sign up for our emails!