The Bering Strait, home to more than 10 million nesting seabirds and the only connection between the Pacific and Arctic oceans, is becoming a crucial route for international shipping businesses as a consequence of climate change. Due to the melting of polar sea ice, the area is opening up earlier each year to ship traffic, and also staying navigable for longer. With an increase in shipping pressures in the Strait, the United States Coast Guard realized they needed to plan out a shipping route to navigate through the area in a way that was economically effective, safe for ships, and took the cultural and ecological importance of the area into account.
After the Coast Guard proposed the first shipping routes, however, environmentalists quickly realized that showing where ships should go was not enough. They also needed to designate where ships should not go, known as "Areas to Be Avoided." Enter Audubon Alaska, who offered to run the analysis based on the terabytes of data and years of expertise that its staff has in mapping the ecological richness of Alaska and the Arctic.
The basis of Audubon Alaska’s analysis rested in its 2010 Ecological Atlas, a synthesis of scientific spatial data gathered about the Arctic Ocean, as well as documentation of indigenous knowledge by partner organizations. Audubon’s research showed that the Bering Strait is hotspot of global proportions: It is a major migration bottleneck, a significant nesting area for millions of colonial birds, and home to hundreds of thousands of marine mammals.
Between 2011 and 2016, Melanie Smith, Audubon Alaska’s director of conservation science, delineated Areas to Be Avoided to accompany the Coast Guard’s shipping route in order to safeguard the most important seabird habitats, mammal migration routes, and cultural areas. In 2017, the US Coast Guard accepted those recommendations.
On July 11, 2018, Audubon Alaska received a United States Coast Guard Public Service Commendation for its diligent work of gathering existing data and using it to create a cohesive conservation strategy that supported the Coast Guard’s route.
“This is a perfect example of that Audubon narrative we talk about so often,” Smith says. “The moving from science, to mapping, to prioritization, to policy. Our work really made a difference, and they really appreciated it.”
Today, in addition to the Coast Guard’s acceptance of Audubon Alaska’s recommendations, which subject ships to penalties if they do not comply to avoid the designated areas listed in the Coast Guard’s shipping plan, the International Maritime Organization took up the issue and approved the recommendations as the official ship routing measures in the Bering Strait.
Smith says she's proud to have worked together with the US Coast Guard to fight the dangers of shipping accidents and create a route that is beneficial to both conservation and shipping. “There is less ice and more ships now, and over time those two things will become more and more true,” she says. “So with that in mind, we looked ahead and together with the Coast Guard proactively took this on.”