Marine Mammals Face Increased Risk from Arctic Shipping, Say WCS and Alaska Native Groups
23.03.2012 - Water & Oceans, Flora & Fauna, Arctic
According to conclusions from a workshop involving Alaska Native groups and the Wildlife Conservation Society, a rapid increase in shipping in the Arctic significantly increases risk posed to marine mammals and the local communities that rely on them. The workshop, held in Anchorage, Alaska 12-14 March, looked at potential impacts on wildlife and highlighted priorities for managing shipping in the Arctic.
As overall sea ice cover has been diminishing in extent and thickness over the past decade and as the length of the open sea ice season grows, this has opens up potential for increased shipping and oil and gas development. Transit through the Arctic is 30% shorter than transit via the Suez or Panama Canals; as routes open up further, travelling these routes may become more lucrative, according to the conference organizers.
As shipping lanes pass through the habitats of many species, including the Bering Strait, which is a major migratory route for bowhead whale and walrus populations. Workshop participants discussed potential impacts on marine mammals such as bowhead whales, beluga whales, walruses, several seal species, and polar bears. Studies have shown that shipping can have potential impacts on whales, including injury and mortality from being struck by a ship, or low-frequency noise they emit interfering with their ability to navigate. Noise pollution can also have a negative impact on walrus, and even fish.Speed limits on ships have worked for protecting whale species in the North Atlantic.
Lack of response capability for an oil spill is also a major concern for the Alaska Native groups and the WCS. Dr. Martin Robards of the WCS called for a comprehensive approach “to prepare for a potential environmental disaster in a region nowhere marine mammals transit both national and international waters.
The workshop sought to inform future research on the effects of development in the Arctic as well as support Alaska natives as they “seek to actively protect the health and safety of the marine mammals they rely on.”