International agency OKs proposed Bering Strait shipping routes

Bering Sea and Bering Strait shipping routes stemming from efforts of Russia and United States to safeguard shipping traffic and the environment have received approval from the International Maritime Organization.

Established in 1948, the International Maritime Organization, or IMO for short, regulates shipping and is an agency of the United Nations. The US Coast Guard has been a key participant in IMO policy development for half a century.

The routes for ship traffic that would ply the territorial waters of Alaska and Russia are voluntary for international and domestic ship of 400-gross tonnage and above, as traffic studies indicate these are the vessels likely to use the routes. They do not limit commercial fishing or food gathering activities.

Traffic transit data and charts show all vessel types except fishing vessels with a regulatory weight of 400-gross tons and above. A resulting profile shows that ships 400 gross tons and above are more likely to operate in the vicinity of proposed routes on the chart, and therefore more likely follow the proposed routing measures and accrue the risk mitigation benefits.

The United States and Russia came up with the six two-way routes plus six sensitive areas to avoid in response to increased shipping summoned by expansion of navigable waters due to ice melt in polar regions.
The areas to be avoided, ATBA for short, have defined width, size and clear boundaries to make clearer to the navigator where recent hydrographic surveys have been gathered, according to IMO releases. They increase ship safety by decreasing heightened risk from more vessel traffic and shipping activity by maintaining a safe separation  between ships and shoreline, as well as reduce the risk of pollution or other damage to the marine environment, including national and international recognized species and their habitats.

Adherence to the shipping routes will begin Dec. 1 and help mariners avoid navigational hazards  —reefs, islands, shoals and to reduce the risks of environmental disasters.

“This is a big step forward as the U.S. Coast Guard continues to work with international, interagency and maritime stakeholders to make our waterways safer, more efficient and more resilient, “ Mike Sollosi, chief of USCG Navigation Standards Division, said.

Increased vessel traffic of all sorts—cargo, adventure tourism, resource development, research and science vessel platforms, have increased risk to the delicate marine environment, living ocean resources, including endangered species and food sources required by indigenous communities along northern coastlines. Rising vessel traffic had concomitantly brought along increased likelihood of sinking, grounding, collisions as well as the possibility of oil and hazardous material pollution that threaten the polar marine environment.

 “The IMO Maritime Safety Committee’s decision to accept a Russia—U.S. proposal to create six two-way sea routes for ships traveling between the Arctic and Pacific oceans and six precautionary areas is a significant step forward,” Joy Baker, Nome’s port director said. “This traffic separation scheme is an acknowledgement of the increased maritime interest in this region and represents a firm commitment to Arctic residents to minimize maritime incidents and protect subsistence hunters and the marine environment.

“The next appropriate step is the development of marine infrastructure,” Baker said. “These new shipping lanes will help to minimize accidents, but we still need to do so much onshore to prepare for when accidents occur.”

The cooperatively proposed routes and areas of concern came out of Port Access Route Study, known as PARS, of marine traffic developed by the 17th U. S. Coast Guard District in 2017, founded on a decade of consultation with public agency and private stakeholders as well as Alaska coastal communities.

The safety routes will complement the protocols of the Polar Code already adopted. The Polar Code entered into force in January 2017. It sets out mandatory standards covering the full range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training and environmental protection matters that apply to ships operating in the inhospitable waters surrounding the two poles.

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