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Document Type

Article

Abstract

Climate change in the circumpolar Arctic is reducing seasonal sea ice coverage and leading to longer periods when the ocean surface is relatively ice-free. The reduction in the temporal and geographic extent of sea ice is in turn driving increased interest in the pursuit of commercial and industrial activities throughout the Arctic, including oil and gas exploration and development, mining, tourism, and shipping. While these activities are already affecting various parts of the Arctic Ocean, the Bering Strait and surrounding waters are likely to experience especially significant impacts due to the increased vessel traffic associated with the expansion of commercial activity. Sea ice covers the Bering Strait region for much of the year, and the area is subject to severe weather and strong ocean currents. Despite the harsh environment, these waters are remarkably productive. Fish and wildlife—including a wide variety of marine mammals and seabirds— make extensive use of the area, and many species use the Bering Strait as a vital migration corridor. Moreover, the people residing in Bering Strait communities are an integral part of the region’s rich ecosystem. For thousands of years they have depended on the marine resources of the region to support their way of life. As seasonal sea ice diminishes and industrial activity in the Arctic grows, the Bering Strait will continue to experience increasing levels of vessel traffic. Increased maritime traffic in the narrow, often icy waters of the Bering Strait could elevate the risk of maritime accidents that lead to injury and loss of life. Increased vessel traffic may also result in more pollution, ship strikes on marine mammals, chronic and catastrophic spills, and other unanticipated environmental impacts. These threats are of particular concern due to the region’s lack of infrastructure and limited resources to support search and rescue, spill response, and restoration activities. In a part of the ocean as biologically rich and fragile as the Bering Strait region, these increased environmental impacts could have serious consequences. At present, there are few protective measures in place to improve safety, reduce the risk of accidents, or mitigate environmental impacts associated with increased commercial vessel traffic in the Bering Strait and surrounding waters. With vessel traffic in the region likely to expand significantly, the status quo must change. Given the Bering Strait region’s status as a gateway between the Pacific and Arctic oceans, its significance as a wildlife migration corridor, its biological productivity, and its importance to the subsistence economies of surrounding communities, the United States should work with the Russian Federation and the international community to adopt and implement heightened safety, prevention, management, and mitigation measures in order to protect the region from the impacts of increased vessel traffic. This Article outlines the environmental and socio-economic characteristics of the Bering Strait region, explores the legal framework that governs shipping traffic in the Strait, identifies the institutions that are best positioned to adopt and implement changes in policy and governance, and examines the legal tools and instruments available to regulate vessel traffic that will improve safety and protect the people and biological resources of the region. Part II of this Article describes some of the attributes of the Bering Strait and its surrounding waters, including geographical features, the role of seasonal sea ice, biological characteristics, neighboring human communities, and the ongoing and anticipated impacts of climate change and ocean acidification. Part III describes the status and expected future growth of maritime traffic in the region. Part IV of this Article explains the overarching legal regime established by customary international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, with particular emphasis on those portions of the law that relate to international straits, ecologically important areas, and ice-covered waters. Part V identifies and describes institutions that could facilitate the adoption and implementation of improved safety and environmental protection measures in the Bering Strait region and evaluates some of the specific instruments and tools that these institutions could employ. Finally, Part VI recommends that the United States, the Russian Federation, other Arctic nations, and the international community act now—in advance of a crisis—to adopt and implement specific measures designed to improve safety, reduce the threat of accidents, and prevent and mitigate environmental threats that are likely to develop as a result of increased vessel traffic in the Bering Strait region.

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