Russia, U.S. tackle increased shipping in Arctic strait with IMO submission

The Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica sets sail in the North Pacific Ocean toward the Bering Strait on July 7, 2017. Increased shipping traffic in the Bering Sea has prompted Russia and the United States to make a joint submission to the IMO. (David Goldman/Associated Press/The Canadian Press)
With Arctic activity on the uptick, Russia and the United States have drafted a new system of two-way routes through the Bering Strait and Bering Sea and submitted them to the  International Maritime Organization (IMO).

“Over the past decade, the U.S. and Russia have both observed a steady increase in Arctic shipping activity,” said Mike Sollosi, the chief of the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Standards Division, in a news release on Thursday.

“The U.S. Coast Guard is engaging international and interagency partners across borders in developing joint proposals for ship routes in waterways that we share.”

The Russia, U.S. proposed routes would follow current navigation patterns, the joint submission said. (Source: USCG – Russia, U.S. IMO submission -Routeing Measures and Mandatory Ship Reporting Systems)

The countries’ proposal, dated November 17, 2017, suggests six two-way routes and six precautionary areas that would be voluntary for all domestic and international ships of 400 gross tonnage or above.

The measure would help reduce the chance of accidents and environmental disasters by helping ships avoid the islands, reefs and shoals found outside of the proposed routes, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Bering Sea - Quick Facts
  • 60,925 transit segments associated with fishing vessels; represents 52% of total transit segments
  • average depth in eastern Bering Sea 6 to 75 metres
  • some nautical charts used for eastern area of Bering Sea use 100-year-old hydrographic data

Source: United States Coast Guard

Changing climate, changing realities

Ice conditions in the Arctic continue to change as the climate warms and new routes would provide ships more flexibility in avoiding sea ice and allow easier intervention in case of emergency, Russia and the U.S. said in their joint submission.

The new routes would also help respond to the shipping uptick increased accessibility brings, something coming from a variety of sectors ranging from research vessels to commercial shipping, and from adventure tourism to cargo and passenger traffic.

“This upward trend in ship traffic brings with it an increased likelihood of maritime casualties such as sinking, groundings, collisions, oil discharges and hazardous material releases, which in turn
threatens the vulnerable marine environment, which is home to many endangered species and remote indigenous communities that rely heavily on traditional subsistence activities,” the submission says.

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Environmental group praises Canada’s new Arctic shipping rules, Radio Canada International

China:  Chinese company confirms interest in trans-Arctic shipping to Arkhangelsk, The Independent Barents Observer

Finland: US icebreaker investment could bring 2 billions euro windfall to Finland, Yle News

Iceland:  Environmental groups call on Arctic cruise industry to reduce pollution in Iceland, Eye on the Arctic

Norway:  Arctic nations team up for shipping emergencies, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Arctic seaports bustle as shipping on Russia’s Northern Sea Route reaches new high, The Independent Barents Observer

South Korea:  South Korean company plans shipping through Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Canada, France, Norway and Sweden express support for ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, Radio Canada International

United States:  Arctic no shipping rival to Suez: expert, Alaska Public Radio Network

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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