Photo courtesy of Loren Sztajer
Previously unused shipping routes are experiencing a large increase in traffic, resulting in increased risk to marine mammal species. These routes have only recently been utilised by shipping transport due to the recent disappearance of sea ice which previously caused them to be blocked. One route under particular scrutiny is the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, an ecologically rich but relatively narrow pass for ships travelling through both the Northern Sea Route north of Russia and the Northwest Passage through Canada’s Arctic islands. This area is of high priority due to its concentration of marine mammals and indigenous people. Some of the species featured in this particular pass include the bowhead and beluga whale, walrus, several kinds of seals and the polar bear.
“The disappearance of summer sea ice from the region’s coastal areas is leading to major changes in this part of the world,” scientist Martin Robards said in a statement. “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 large number of marine mammals migrating through and inhabiting the Bering Strait passageway between the Pacific and Arctic oceans now require attention in order to enforce protection. A method previously utilised is that of the implementation of shipping restrictions, used along the Atlantic coast of Canada and the U.S. due to concerns about the endangered North Atlantic right whale. These restrictions further encouraged the imposition of speed limits and other conservation measures as a potential framework for protecting bowhead whales in the Arctic. These “trans-boundary protection schemes” in both Atlantic and Pacific waters shared by the U.S. and Canada also encourage models for advancement of a mammal-protection regime in the Arctic Ocean. The Wildlife Conservation Charity (WCS) have also suggested the possible need for marine mammal observers aboard all ships moving through sensitive Arctic waters, as well as seasonal restrictions on ship traffic in certain breeding and feeding grounds.
Speed limits have already been put in place elsewhere on the globe; in early 2012, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the resolution of three cases involving large commercial vessels that violated speed limits in known baleen whale habitats between New York City and Florida. Two other ship owners agreed to pay their fines as well, and six more are still facing charges of breaking the 10-knot speed limit imposed in 2008 in areas identified as baleen whale migration corridors and calf rearing areas. The ships had been clocked at up to 18 knots and were charged with $5,750 tickets for each offence. NOAA researchers have concluded that ship speed is a clear “predictor of death” when vessels and whales collide.
“The likelihood of a whale fatality due to ship strike increases from around 45 per cent to 75 per cent when vessel speed increases from 10 to 14 knots,” said NOAA early in 2012. “Chance of death at 17 knots was 90 per cent.”
Environmentalists and Arctic aboriginal groups are now encouraging speed limits on ships and other rules to protect marine mammals in the Northwest Passage. The WCS and native organizations, including the Inuit Circumpolar Council, issued a call on Friday 16th March 2012 for northern countries to acknowledge the rising risks to northern marine creatures resulting from the increase in shipping in the formerly ice-choked waterways of the Arctic.
By Will Matthews