Regional Environment Case Study - Bering Strait

(from ASMA Report 2009)        


Current shipping activity in the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea predominately comprises community re-supply and destinational traffic.

Traffic plying the Bering Strait, one of the narrowest sea lanes in the world, also traverses remote areas with difficult access for incident response, rescue and contaminant or debris cleanup. The U.S. Beaufort Sea coast has no port facilities or harbors suitable for refuge for medium to deep draft vessels and there are also very limited facilities on the Russian side of the strait. Given its restricted geographic nature, confounded by ice movement and strong ocean currents, the Bering Strait area is a major chokepoint for vessels transiting the region. The Aleutian Low creates persistent high winds and stormy conditions that elevate risk to vessels and cargo transiting the Aleutian and Commander Islands area. These severe weather patterns may reduce the effectiveness of response to spills or other incidents.

This region includes four of the Arctic Large Marine Ecosystems: the Beaufort Sea LME, the Chukchi Sea LME, and East and West Bering Sea LME. Increased vessel traffic in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas may result in greater incidents of damage to the environment from ships, including pollutant discharges, and an increase in the risk of disturbance effects such as ship noise and ship strikes on migrating and foraging bowheads or other marine mammals. Any vessel incidents in this region would also have the potential to adversely affect major populations of nesting shorebirds, waterfowl and other birds that utilize breeding, nesting and foraging habitat along the coastal Beaufort and Chukchi seas and along the coast of western Alaska.

The eastern Bering Sea supports some of the largest commercial fisheries in the world. Increased vessel use of the eastern route that traverses the eastern Bering Sea may increase potentially adverse interactions with this region’s rich fishery resources, fishing communities and hundreds of fishing vessels and support vessels. Spills due to accidental or illegal discharge from vessels could drift ashore to western Alaska areas where seasonal herring and salmon fisheries occur.

The western Arctic stock of bowhead whales seasonally migrates through the Bering Strait, Chukchi and Beaufort seas. In the Bering Strait, they are physically constricted to a relatively small corridor, exposing them to increased interactions with vessels transiting this area during spring and fall. Bowhead whale migration could also potentially be disrupted by icebreakers. Whales could move further offshore following the open leads created by icebreaking vessels, putting them out of reach of coastal whaling communities. Any disruption of the spring and fall hunts, or any injury or mortality to bowheads would be considered a major issue to coastal Alaskan and Siberian communities.

Ice-dependent marine mammals in this region, such as polar bear, walrus and seals, already stressed due to sea ice retreat, may be at increased risk from any additional ship-sourced stressors or contamination, as populations will become increasingly concentrated around retreating sea ice.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

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