As Arctic sea ice melts, Alaska's whales, walruses, and polar bears may face a new obstacle as they navigate local waters: traffic. According to an assemblage of Alaska Native groups and WCS, the rapid increase in shipping in these formerly frozen waterways poses a heightened risk to the region's marine mammals and the local communities that rely on them for food security and cultural identity.
The groups recently convened at a workshop in Anchorage, Alaska to examine these potential impacts. At issue is the effect of climate change on Arctic waters, which over the last few decades have become increasingly ice-free during summer and fall. The lengthening of the open-water season has led to new industrial developments, including oil and gas activities and a rising number of large maritime vessels. The ships transit either the Northern Sea Route over the Russian Arctic from Europe, or the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic from the Atlantic. Both routes require passage through the Bering Strait, the only gateway to the Pacific and a key migratory pathway for marine mammals heading to and from the Arctic Ocean.
At the Anchorage workshop, participants specifically looked at how shipping traffic in international and national waters between Alaska and Russia impacts bowhead whales, beluga whales, walruses, several seal species, and polar bears. In spring and fall, almost the entire bowhead whale and walrus populations migrate through the narrow Bering Strait.
In the past, multi-year sea ice in the Arctic basin that extended to both the Canadian and Russian Federation coastlines had been a serious obstacle for large ships.
"The disappearance of summer sea ice from the region's coastal areas is leading to major changes in this part of the world," said Dr. Martin Robards, director of WCS's Beringia Program. "The presence of large ocean-going vessels is expected to increase as the region becomes more attractive to both international shipping and extractive industries seeking minerals, oil, and gas. The northern sea route is thirty percent shorter than the comparable route linking northern Europe to Asia via the Suez Canal, which only supports the conclusion that the Bering Strait is likely to get busier. We need to ensure that the mutual interests shared by Alaska Natives and the conservation community for the health and safety of marine mammals are included in the protection of the region's natural resources."
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