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2020 Future Scenario for the Bering Strait Region

(from AMSA Report 2009)


The Bering Strait is a narrow international strait that connects the North Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean and forms the only corridor between northern and east-west transportation routes (Map 6.1). At the strait’s narrowest point, the continents of North America and Asia are just 90 km apart. With diminishing summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, the Bering Strait region may experience increased destinational traffic to the oil and gas exploration areas in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, and to the Red Dog Mine in northwest Alaska.

Sea Ice

Seasonally dynamic sea ice conditions are found in this natural bottleneck. Typically, sea ice develops along the coasts in October and November. During May-July the ice edge retreats northward through the region. First-year sea ice can develop to more than 1.2 meters thick during the winter. Except for shorefast ice, sea ice movement in the Bering Strait region is dynamic and forced by winds and currents. Ice has been observed to move through the region at speeds as high as 27 nautical miles per day. The seasonal ice field does not contain icebergs from land-based glaciers; however, multi-year ice from the Arctic ice pack has been observed to flow southward through the strait and into the Bering Sea. The future sea ice extent in the vicinity of the Bering Strait is projected to change only slightly in spring (April and May); however, a significant reduction (later freeze-up) is projected for the future in November and December.

Ecosystem and Bio-Resource Considerations

The Bering Strait region is a highly productive area extensively used by many species, including several species listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The prolific continental shelf seasonally supports a rich array of benthic feeders, such as gray whales, Pacific walruses and seabirds. Ice-dependent marine mammals seasonally move through the region as sea ice retreats in the summer and advances in the fall.

Many species depend upon primary productivity associated with sea ice, and the juxtaposition of the seasonal ice, shallow depth and productive benthos serves to support a unique diversity and high density of marine life. It is a dynamic region, and the physical constraints of the Bering Strait serve to seasonally concentrate species associated with the ice edge. The region is the only migration corridor for many species of fish, birds and marine mammals. Potential conflicts between increased ship traffic and large marine pinnipeds and cetaceans in the region are associated with increases in ambient and underwater ship noise, ship strikes, entanglement in marine debris and pollution (including oil spills).

Indigenous Marine Use

The Bering Strait region is home to three distinct linguistic and cultural groups of Eskimo people in Alaska: the Inupiaq, Central Yupik and Siberian Yupik on Saint Lawrence Island. The coastline of the Bering Strait region has been continually occupied by indigenous people for several thousand years. Human populations in this region have been dependent on marine resources, including mammals, fish, birds, macro algae, shellfish and other invertebrates. The hunting of large marine mammals has been the primary adaptive subsistence strategy of Bering Strait human populations for more than 1,000 years.

Currently, the population of the Bering Strait region is greater than 10,000 people, with Alaska Natives comprising more than three-fourths of the population. There are 15 year-round villages along the U.S. coast that range in population from approximately 150 to more than 750 residents.

The use of different marine resources occurs throughout the year. However, use strategies change seasonally with the animal migrations and life history stages. Regions where marine resources are gathered include beaches, coastal waters and/or nearshore waters, and may include offshore waters. For example, to adapt to the rapidly changing accessibility and availability of sea ice, hunting of large marine mammals (i.e., walruses) can take place up to 50 to 80 nautical miles offshore. Travel to these offshore locations is typically conducted in small open boats and a hunt can span several days before a vessel returns to its port of origin.

Marine resources are of vital importance to peoples of this region. Not surprisingly, today’s U.S. communities in this region, except White Mountain, are situated on the shores of the Bering or Chukchi seas and are strongly tied to subsistence lifestyles. This maritime reliance for subsistence in the Bering Strait region is very significant and, for marine mammal species such as walruses, whales and seals, comprises a significant portion of the total U.S. harvest. Additional marine-based resources are obtained through beachcombing, clamming, gathering seabird eggs, fishing, birding, gathering greens and other activities.

While Bering Strait region communities exhibit unique socioeconomic, cultural and political differences, they all use the marine resources for nutritional reliance, cultural customs and economic dependence (for example, clothing, equipment, handicrafts, commercial fishing and hunting and limited ecotourism). The general patterns of large marine mammal hunting and reliance on other marine resources (i.e., fish, crabs, birds, beachcast invertebrates, macro algae) persist to the present time, despite technological changes.

Table 6.3 graphically demonstrates the maritime reliance for subsistence in the Bering Strait region with more than 85 percent of the harvested resources being marine-derived. The regional reliance on marine mammals is very significant.

The communities closest to proposed vessel traffic in the Bering Strait region (Gambell, Savoonga, Shishmaref and Wales) have a high reliance on ocean-based resources. The St. Lawrence Island communities of Gambell and Savoonga are most dependent on marine resources, with the marine mammal harvest totaling over one million kilograms. More than 95 percent of their total subsistence harvests are marine-based resources (i.e., seabirds, eggs, fish and marine mammals). Shishmaref, on Sarichef Island, and Wales, on the mainland, demonstrate a high reliance on marine resources with more than 75 percent of their total harvest derived from the sea. In contrast, the coastal communities of southern Norton Sound, especially Stebbins and Unalakleet, demonstrate a higher reliance on fish, especially salmon, which is indicative of the highly productive river influences.

Though current environmental patterns and predictions indicate a profound and long-term ecosystem change to the Bering Strait region, human reliance on marine resources for subsistence remains essential. The importance of the cooperative hunting of large marine mammals and the use of all available marine resources for nutritional, cultural and economic needs will persist in the region.

In 2001, Russia and the U.S. signed the Agreement between Government of the Russian Federation and United States of America on Cooperation in Combating Pollution in the Bering and Chukchi Seas in Emergency Situations. This agreement establishes cooperation in oil spill preparedness and response in the Bering Strait region.

Potential conflicts between increased ship traffic and indigenous marine resource use in the Bering Strait region include but are not limited to an increased amount of:

• Ambient and underwater ship noise - recognized as one of the primary concerns to marine mammal populations, especially within the narrow and shallow migration corridor;

• Ship strikes on large marine mammals;

• Entanglement of large marine mammals in commercial fishing gear;

• Potential for collision between coastal and offshore large ship traffic and small open boats using marine resources;

• Pollution affecting the availability and quality of offshore, coastal and beachcast marine resources, due in part, but not limited to: lack of navigational and rescue infrastructure in an extremely challenging physical and marine environment; concern for infrastructure to secure a large vessel in distress; concern for infrastructure to assess and respond to an oil and/or chemical spill; and language (for example, English, Russian, Siberian Yupik) and cultural communication barriers.

In spite of the intensive subsistence use of resources, dynamic ice conditions and biological richness, there are currently no operational ocean-observing platforms in this region. Map 6.2 describes a potential observing system for the Bering Strait region, building upon existing (mostly research) assets.

Commercial Marine Uses: Fishing, Oil and Gas, Minerals, Tourism and Shipping

In the Bering Strait region, there are three primary U.S. ports: Nome, Kotzebue and the DeLong Mountain Transportation System (DMTS) port serving the Red Dog mine. The main ports on the Russian side are just south of the Bering Strait, as they are on the U.S. side. The three largest ports are Provideniya, Anadyr and Egvekinot. The water depth in most U.S. and Russian ports in this region is about 10 meters or less.

Overall, approximately 150 large commercial vessels pass through the Bering Strait during the July-October open water period, with transits of these vessels most frequent at the beginning (spring) and end of the period (autumn). This estimate excludes fishing vessels, which are generally smaller, as well as fuel barges serving coastal mining activities and coastal communities.

Potential offshore development north of the Bering Strait region in the Chukchi and Beaufort lease sale areas could plausibly increase the numbers of support and supply ships transiting the region. There is no indication or information in support of ships transiting the Bering Strait on trans-Arctic voyages by 2020.

Infrastructure, Navigation and Communication

There are currently no established vessel routing measures in the Bering Strait region. A Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) may need to be established in the region as vessel traffic increases. There is currently no active Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) or other traffic management system in place in the waters of the Bering Strait. Shipboard Automated Identification System (AIS) capability is currently limited. Presently the Marine Exchange of Alaska has established and is expanding AIS reception capability throughout portions of the Bering Sea.

There are no shore-based very high frequency (VHF) FM communication services available in the Bering Strait region. The U.S. Coast Guard does maintain VHF-FM sites in the Bering Sea, and maintains a HF radio guard for emergency and distress calling, but HF coverage of the Arctic region is poor. There are only three U.S. Coast Guard maintained navigational aids at the Bering Strait along the north side of the Seward Peninsula into Kotzebue Sound. There are no navigational aids north of Kotzebue Sound.

There is 100 percent coverage of the Bering Strait region from the Global Positioning System-Standard Positioning Service (GPS-SPS). However, the GPS constellation is not configured for optimal positioning in high latitudes, resulting in a potential degradation of position accuracy. There is currently no Differential GPS (DGPS) coverage of the area.

In the Bering Strait region, limited capabilities exist to respond to an incident, whether it is for lifesaving or oil recovery. Weather and oceanographic observations necessary to support search and rescue and oil recovery operations are also minimal. Even if a U.S. Coast Guard operating team were seasonally deployed to an Arctic coastal community, weather and distance to an incident site would remain huge challenges. Under present circumstances, vessels in distress must depend on other vessels or local communities in the area for assistance or wait until aid arrives. Few viable salvage vessels are available north of the Aleutian Islands.


1] The Bering Strait region is an international strait for navigation and a natural chokepoint for marine traffic in and out of the Arctic Ocean from the Pacific Ocean.

2] The region, seasonally ice-covered, is a highly productive area extensively used by many species of seabirds, marine mammals and fish. The highly productive continental shelf supports a rich array of benthic feeders; ice-dependent species also move through the region as sea ice retreats and advances. The Bering Strait serves to concentrate species associated with the ice edge and is the only migration corridor for many species.

3] The Bering Strait region is a prolific location for nesting seabird colonies, making it a vulnerable location for ecological disruptions.

4] Indigenous people have continually inhabited the coastline of the Bering Strait region for several thousand years. Marine resources today are of vital importance to coastal American and Russian populations throughout the Bering Strait region. They are dependent on marine resources including marine mammals, fish, birds, macro algae, shellfish and other invertebrates. Hunting of large marine mammals can take place 50-80 nautical miles offshore.

5] Ships related to a spectrum of uses are found in the Bering Strait region: fishing, hard minerals/mining, science and exploration, tourism and offshore oil and gas development. Approximately 25 large commercial ships (bulk carriers) annually sail north through the Bering Strait region (in the ice-free season) to the DeLong Mountain Terminal off Kivalina in northwest Alaska.

6] There are no formally established vessel routing measures in the Bering Strait region and there are very few visual aids to navigation in the region. Any future voluntary set of traffic routes, or a vessel traffic system, could be proposed by the United States and the Russian Federation to the International Maritime Organization.

7] Offshore oil and gas development may lead to increased marine traffic in the Bering Strait region during the next several decades. Multiple use management practices and measures to mitigate potential impacts (noise, emissions, ship strikes, discharges, etc.) from these new uses would be useful.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©