Study of Bering Strait Region

Contributed by:
This case study focuses on the current and future use of the Bering Strait region. A summary of these surveys is provided by the USGS Alaska Science Center with data sets maintained online through the USGS.
1. Bering Strait Region Case Study
L. Brigham (USARC), M. Cerne (USCG), K. Cole (NOAA, NWS), N. Durham (USNA),
A. Fish (NOAA, NWS), C. Johnson (USARC), M. McCammon (AOOS), R. Meehan
(USFWS), S. Montoya (USCG), T. Newbury (USMMS), J. Overland (NOAA), R.
Pawlowski (AFDF), G. Sheffield (ADF&G), M. Wang (NOAA).
I. Introduction
Separating the Asian and North American continents, the Bering Strait is a narrow
international strait that connects the North Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean and forms
the major corridor between northern and southern transportation routes (Figure 1). At the
strait’s narrowest point, Alaska’s Cape Prince of Wales and Russia’s Cape Dezhnev are
just 90 km apart. Seasonally dynamic sea ice conditions of all types are to be found in
this natural bottleneck, including shorefast ice, pan ice, and moving pack ice that can be
either newly formed ice or older, multi-year ice.
Figure 1. Potential shipping routes that pass through the Bering Strait.
The closest towns of any size are Nome, Alaska on the southern side of the Seward
Peninsula and Alyatki, Russia on the northern edge of the Chukchi Peninsula. A pair of
2. islands, the Diomedes, lies in the middle of the strait with Russia claiming Big Diomede
Island and the United States claiming Little Diomede Island with less than 4 km
separating the two islands. The International Dateline also slices through the center of
the Bering Strait dividing the Diomede Islands, and possibly complicating navigation.
The average water depths in the strait range from 30 to 50 meters.
Figure 2. Vessel traffic in the Bering Strait Region during Summer 2004.
Canada’s Northwest Passage
Potential Trans Polar Route
This case study focuses onRussa’s Northern
the current and futureSea
2020) use of the Bering Strait
region. The strait is a bottleneck that connects two unique, but globally significant large
marine ecosystems: the Bering Sea, part of the North Pacific Ocean, and the Chukchi
Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. The strait is international, bordered by the United States on
one side and Russia on the other and ringed by numerous small communities with a large
indigenous population.
3. Like the rest of the Arctic, it is a dynamic region, with current climate change amplifying
all its complexities. The Bering Strait region is defined by the presence or absence of sea
ice and by local oceanographic conditions as described below. Those conditions and the
region’s biological communities are changing quickly and in unpredictable ways, making
the region more vulnerable to human and natural perturbations. Although the
environmental impacts from increased marine shipping in the Arctic are described in
Chapter 6, the potential damage from an oil spill in this region would be great, especially
given that a spill in ice conditions would be nearly impossible to clean up given current
II. Description of the study area
For the purposes of this review, the Bering Strait region is considered bounded by 63°N
to 67°N. The geography of the Bering Strait presents a choke point between the two
oceans as the continental land masses and the ocean bottom converge creating a shallow,
narrow opening. The bottom profile of the region presents a uniformly shallow and
gently sloping floor with the eastern region being slightly shallower (30-40m) compared
to the deeper (40-50m) western edge toward Russia. There are several islands in the
Bering Strait region with St. Lawrence Island to the south being the largest. St. Lawrence
Island stretches 145km east to west with a width of 13-26km and covers over 4,600km².
Other islands of note are the two Diomede Islands in the middle of the strait, Fairway
Rock to the south-east of Little Diomede, and King Island south of Cape Prince of Wales.
All of these islands are characterized with high, rocky cliffs. St. Lawrence Island and the
two Diomedes support year around indigenous populations.
To the south in the Bering Sea, there are two large embayments, the shallow (20m)
Norton Sound to the east and the deep (70-90m) Gulf of Anadyr to the west. A 50m deep
channel runs between the Chukotka Peninsula and the western side of St. Lawrence
Island. St. Lawrence Island presents a noticeable effect on the northerly currents through
the Bering Strait by diverting flow to both sides and creating a northerly lee for 150km.
It also effects tidal and wave energy pushing north from the Bering Sea. Channeled
winds typically blow either north or south through the strait due to the high, mountainous
capes that rise up from both peninsulas.
Ocean currents and characteristics
The Bering Strait creates a convergence zone of different currents and temperature and
salinity gradients. The currents are broadly well mapped and known as shown in Figure
3. Throughout the year, the water flows predominately to the north due to the wind-
driven northerly sloping sea surface. The northward current transports many nutrients,
algae, and zooplankton into the southwestern Chukchi Sea. The ocean waters in the
Bering Strait region are some of the most biologically productive waters in the world
ocean, especially due to the nutrient-rich Anadyr water that flows northward on the
western side of the Bering Sea. The flow speeds are not uniform across or along the
4. strait. Flows are almost always swifter within the strait than away from this
geographically and bathymetrically constricted area. The flow rates also vary by region
with the eastern side experiencing fast to intermediate velocities and the deeper western
side experiencing slower and more uniform velocities with a strong velocity sheer
between the two sides. Several shoals have formed from these current disparities with
one large shoal extending 100km from Cape Prince of Wales.
Figure 3. Water masses that flow through the Bering Strait (from Weingartner et al., 1999)
The oceanography of the Bering Straits region is dominated by the Anadyr Current which
moves through Anadyr Strait and then northward through Bering Strait. The Anadyr
Current results in high primary production over the northern shelf and through the Bering
Strait. The strength of the Anadyr Current is related to the magnitude of flow through the
Bering Strait. This net northward flow is driven by the difference between sea level in the
North Pacific and Arctic Oceans (0.4–0.5 m). On short time scales, this northward flow is
modified by wind-generated coastal changes in sea level. During the weak winds of
5. summer, northward transport is greatest and provides the strong flux of nutrients for
primary production.
Flow along the Alaskan coast of the northern Bering Sea is a combination of river runoff
(mainly the Yukon River) and a continuation of the Bering Coastal Current of the
southeastern Bering Sea. Production here has been identified as typical of shallow
shelves elsewhere: once nutrients are exhausted during an initial bloom, production is
low and only ~10% of that for the Chirikov Basin and the Gulf of Anadyr. The east-west
gradient in water properties, nutrients, primary production and fauna (transported in the
Anadyr Current) result in two different community structures, a rich benthic system to the
west and a less productive eastern system
Seasonal changes in salinity and temperature when combined with winds are significant
in determining the formation and strength of sea ice. Salinity differs across the strait with
greater salinity in the west. In the eastern region, a distinct pycnocline separates the
warmer, lower salinity surface layer at 10 to 15m from the colder and more saline water
toward the bottom. Several freshwater sources including the Yukon River on the eastern
edge significantly affect the salinity during the summer months. The western edge of the
strait remains relatively uniform with cold, saline water. The temperature difference
between the surface and the bottom rarely exceeds 8°C.
The continental shelf of the Bering Strait case study area is recognized as a broad
generally featureless shelf with 3 major islands and several small islands or rocks. With
depths less than 200 meters over the shelf and a gradient of 0.24m/km, it is one of the
gentlest gradients of the world’s continental shelves. The geology of the Bering Sea and
Bering Strait regions is well described as a shallow epicontinental sea. Surface sediments
west of 169oW are thought to be of glacial and marine origin, while surface sediments
east of 169oW are underlain by river deposits. The deposition of sediment is largely
influenced by geologic and oceanographic processes. Where relief is measurable, it
reflects either tectonic uplift with evidence of modification with sea level change and
glacial activity at St. Lawrence Island and the Seward Peninsula or coastal scouring
associated with strong currents in the vicinity of Cape Prince of Wales. This scouring
extends far into the Chukchi Sea, creating a significant shallow area northeast of the
Bering Strait.
The mapped bathymetry of the Bering Strait case study area reflects the compilation of
soundings collected by national interests and shared through scientific and technical
agreement. The United States side of the international border has been adequately
surveyed to produce bathymetric maps of 1:250,000 scale and contoured to 5 meter
levels. This compilation is based on the soundings by the National Ocean Service,
NOAA and its predecessor, the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1900 to
1971. Bathymetric multi-beam data collected during US EEZ surveys of the 1980’s and
USGS “Gloria” seabed side scan sonar profiles are available, but have not been compiled
into an overall bathymetric map. Surveys of the Russian side of the border are much less
available, with the accuracy of available data at 1:1,000,000. These data have been
merged with the United States surveys to provide a continuous bathymetric profile across
6. the area. A summary of these surveys is provided by the USGS Alaska Science Center
with data sets maintained online through the USGS:
The Bering Strait bathymetric maps are adequate for understanding the general structure
of the seabed and the shoals in the vicinity of St. Matthew, St. Lawrence, King, and the
Diomede Islands, Fairway Rock and extending north of Cape Prince of Wales. However,
chart coverage is poor with the area best displayed on Chart 514, Bering Sea Northern
Part at 1:3,500,000. A modern harbor chart is available only at Nome, Alaska at 1:20,000
reflecting recent harbor construction. Deep draft navigation information is available for
the mineral loading port at the Red Dog Dock. All other navigation in the area is based
on local knowledge and experience.
Coastal shoreline and erosion
The coastal topography has been influenced by periodic rising and lowering of the sea
levels and emergence of the Bering land bridge. Today the coastal topography varies
from low coastal relief of barrier islands and inshore lagoons generally associated with
river deltas to significant coastal bluffs ending the coastal ranges of the Seward
Peninsula. The low coastal relief of St Matthew and St Lawrence Islands reflect
sedimentary processes associated with glacial moraines while the sheer cliffs of King and
the Diomede Islands reflect uplift eroded by coastal processes and arctic maritime
climate. The topography on the islands offers no significant harbors of refuge for other
than shallow draft vessels. The only relatively deep harbor close to the Bering Strait
exists at Port Clarence, where a 4 mile wide channel offers a passage free of dangers with
depths of 42 to 48 feet. This natural embayment is sheltered by the low spit at Point
Spencer to the west, Point Jackson and to the north and the mainland of the Seward
Peninsula to the east and south.
Formation of offshore and landfast sea ice during the early fall months have historically
provided a protective barrier to the coast from the impacts of waves and storm surges.
However, with later freeze-ups in the fall, the coast has recently experienced increased
exposure to the impacts of wave action. This, combined with thawing permafrost
throughout Alaska’s Arctic, has resulted in increased coastal erosion and shoreline
Water levels
Water level information is limited for the area with long term measurements at Nome
Alaska (1992-present) and more recently, the Red Dog dock (2004-present) in Kotzebue
Sound. Predictive models by the National Ocean Services show co-tidal and co-range
contours for the area reflecting a complex tidal regime of diurnal and semi-diurnal tides
with ranges of less than 1 meter change. No predictions are available for the Bering
Strait or north into the Chukchi Sea, other than directly in Kotzebue Sound. Storm surge
is the dominant force in coastal inundation.
Tide coordinated shoreline in the Bering Strait area is limited to a 2003 aerial survey by
NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey in Kotzebue Sound in the vicinity of Kivalina (north
7. shore) and Shishmaref (south shore) for establishing an erosion baseline and comparison
with the 1952 and 1949-1950 surveys. This was the first set of 1:12,000 tide coordinated
data in the Chukchi Sea since the 1959-1953 1:40,000 USGS coastal photogrammetry.
The shoreline of the Bering Strait and the islands of St. Matthew and St. Lawrence are
mapped and maintained from analog data as derived from the USGS mapping efforts
from 1949-1952, with an update only to the south shore of Kotzebue Sound. Norton
Sound and the Yukon delta remain unmapped.
Sea ice
Seasonally dynamic sea ice conditions of all types are to be found in this natural
bottleneck separating the Bering and Chukchi seas and include shorefast ice, polynyas,
pack ice, and pan ice. Seasonally, this sea ice serves as a habitat for small fauna, birds,
and marine mammals. Ice in the Chukchi Sea to the north and the Bering Sea to the south
of the strait is seasonal following the north-south movement of the sun with a lag of about
3 months). The sea ice summer minimum extent typically occurs in late September when
the ice edge lies across the northern Chukchi Sea or further north in the Arctic Ocean.
Sea ice reaches it maximum in April when it stretches across the Bering Sea from the
Alaskan Peninsula to the Kamchatka Peninsula. Typically, ice begins to develop along
the Bering Strait coasts in October and fills the strait in November. The ice transition
periods for the Bering Strait are October and November for advancing ice and May
through July for retreating ice). The variability of these events is shown in the analyses
of ice edge location at the beginning of the months May through July and October
through December for the odd years from 1997 to 2007 (Figures 4-9).
Figure 4 First of May Ice Edge Location Figure 5 First of June Ice Edge Location
8. Figure 6 First of July Ice Edge Location Figure 7 First of October Ice Edge Location
Figure 8 First of November Ice Edge Location Figure 9 First of December Ice Edge Location
9. The ice that develops yearly in the Chukchi and Bering Seas grows to thicknesses greater
than 4 feet. The ice is not stationary and flows between the Chukchi and Bering driven by
winds and currents. Ice is known to move through the Bering Strait at rates close to 27
nautical miles per day. Wind driven polynyas, large areas of open water within the ice
field, are typical near St. Lawrence and St. Matthew islands. The seasonal ice field never
contains ice bergs, ice calved from land-based ice fields. Multiyear ice from the Arctic
ice pack has been known to flow through the strait and into the Bering Sea (Figure 8).
This old ice is thicker and denser than first year ice and, when present, slows the summer
melting process.
Figure 10 - 2006 MODIS image of multi-year ice among seasonal ice in the Bering Strait Region
10. Several programs currently provide sea ice forecasts and products. The National Ice
Center (NIC) provides strategic and tactical ice information to government agencies. The
National Weather Service (NWS) through the Alaska Region Ice Program provides
information to the general public, state and local officials, Alaska Native groups and
various commercial marine interests for sea ice in and near Alaska waters. The Alaska
sea ice forecaster prepares routine Sea Ice Advisory text products three days per week
that are accompanied by a graphical sea ice analysis and five day sea ice forecast. Sea
surface temperature analyses are produced twice per week. The graphic products are GIS
based and available in many formats. The Alaska ice program responds to oil spills,
search and rescue operations and other threatening situations whenever sea ice is a factor.
An analysis of sea ice is made using a combination of surface and satellite data. Surface
data includes ship observations, local observations, digital photos and small plane over-
flights. Satellite data includes visible and infrared (IR) images from geostationary and
polar orbiting platforms, high resolution visible MODIS images from NASA and
Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) from satellites owned by several nations (the United
States does not own a SAR platform system). Visible and IR images are limited by cloud
cover. SAR imagery is not impacted by clouds and has become a significant tool in ice
analysis, although the availability of SAR data was severely decreased when the
Canadian satellite RADARSAT-1 was decommissioned on May 2, 2008.
Projected Changes in the sea-ice Cover
Comprehensive Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models (AOGCMs) are the
major objective tool used to account for the complex interaction of processes and
feedbacks which determine future climate. Such model projections formed the basis of
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4)
and are now archived as part of the CMIP3 Project. Using 17 of the CMIP3 models Wang
and Overland projected that the future sea ice extent in the vicinity of the Bering Strait
will not change dramatically in spring (April and May). For example, by the middle of
this century, a reduction to about 90% of current ice coverage is likely. However, a
significant reduction (later freeze-up) is projected in November and December. The
average ice extent is 30% of today’s area by 2050 (relative to a 1979-1999 mean) in
November and 60% of today’s area in December.
The Bering Strait region is a relatively small, but vastly dynamic and strategic, area that
includes approximately 9,000 vibrant indigenous Russian and American citizens. The
region is home to three distinct linguistic and cultural groups of Eskimo peoples; Inupiaq,
Central Yupik, and Saint Lawrence Island Yupik. There is documented evidence of
human habitation dating as far back as 10,000 years. Alaska Native people make up 75%
of the population. There are 15 year-round villages outside of Nome that range in
population from 161 to 798. For each group/tribe there are socio-economic, cultural, and
political differences and similarities to be considered unique to each group within the
region. Nome is the largest community in the region with approximately 3,700 people. It
is the transportation and service hub for the region. Residents of the region use and rely
11. upon a multitude of marine resources from shared animal populations for their
nutritional, economic, and cultural needs.
The main communities on the Russian side are just south of the Bering Strait, as they are
on the U.S. side, and include Provideniya, Egvekinot, and Anadyr. Provideniya is a
former Soviet military port with a 2002 population of about 2,500, mainly Yupik.
Anadyr is a port on the Gulf of Anadyr, and the eastern-most town in Russia. The
population was about 11,000 in 2002. Egvekinot is a small town with a population of
about 2,500 in 2002. The locations of these communities are illustrated in Figure 2.
III. Ecosystem and Bio-resource Considerations
The Bering Strait region is a highly productive area extensively used by many species
(including several species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act) of marine
mammals, seabirds and fishes. The highly productive continental shelf seasonally
supports a rich array of benthic feeders, such as gray whales, Pacific walrus and
spectacled eiders. Ice-dependent species seasonally move through the region as sea ice
retreats and advances. Many species depend upon primary productivity associated with
sea ice, and the juxtaposition of the seasonal ice and productive benthos serves to support
a unique diversity and density of marine life. It is also a dynamic region and the physical
constraints of the Bering Strait serve to seasonally concentrate species associated with the
ice edge. The Bering Strait region is the only migration corridor for many species
(including several federally listed species) of fishes, birds, and marine mammals.
Potential conflicts between increased ship traffic and large marine pinnipeds and
cetaceans in the Bering Strait region include an increased amount of ambient and
underwater ship noise, ship strikes, entanglement in marine debris, and pollution
including oil spills. This ecosystem information on the Bering Strait supplements the
information on the Bering Strait in Chapter 6 on the arctic environment. Chapter 6
includes detailed information on arctic straits in particular, including the Bering Strait
and Unimak Pass.
III.A Marine Mammals
The Bering Sea and Bering Strait region is home to, or seasonally used by, a large
number of marine mammals. Polar bears and ice-dependent pinnipeds (Pacific walrus,
ribbon seal, bearded seal, spotted seal and ringed seal) seasonally move through the
Straits as they follow seasonal ice movements. Other pinnipeds seasonally use the area
during the ice-free season (Steller sea lion, Northern fur seal). Some cetaceans use the
region as they move into summer feeding areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas (e.g.
Bowhead and gray whales) while others (e.g. Beluga) are residents. Particularly for the
ice-dependent species, the Bering Strait area is a key movement corridor with seasonally
high concentrations of marine mammals in the spring and fall typically tied to ice retreat
and reformation. It is also a highly productive area and therefore an important feeding
12. Bowhead Whale: Western Arctic bowhead whales are distributed in seasonally ice-
covered waters of the Arctic and near-Arctic, generally north of 60N and south of 75N in
the western Arctic Basin. The largest population, and the only stock that is found within
U.S. waters, is the Western Arctic stock, also know as the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock
or Bering Sea stock. The majority of the Western Arctic stock migrates annually from
wintering areas (November to March) in the northern Bering Sea, through the Chukchi
Sea in the spring (March through June), to the Beaufort Sea where they spend much of
the summer (mid May through September) before returning again to the Bering Sea in the
fall (September through November) to overwinter. Most of the year, bowhead whales are
closely associated with sea ice. The bowhead spring migration follows fractures in the
sea ice around the coast of Alaska, generally in the shear zone between the shore-fast ice
and the mobile pack ice. During the summer most of the population is in relatively ice-
free waters in the southern Beaufort Sea. During the autumn migration, bowheads select
shelf waters in all but “heavy ice” conditions, when they select slope habitat. Sightings
of bowhead whales do occur in the summer near Barrow and are consistent with
suggestions that certain areas near Barrow are important feeding grounds. Some
bowheads are found in the Chukchi and Bering seas in summer, and these are thought to
be a part of the expanding Western Arctic stock.
Gray Whale: Most of the Eastern North Pacific stock spends the summer feeding in the
northern Bering and Chukchi seas. Each fall, the whales migrate south along the coast of
North America from Alaska to Baja California, in Mexico. Most of them begin migrating
in November or December. The Eastern North Pacific stock winters mainly along the
west coast of Baja California, using certain shallow, nearly landlocked lagoons and bays,
and calves are born from early January to mid February. The northbound migration
generally begins in mid February and continues through May, with cows and newborn
calves migrating northward primarily between March and June along the U.S. west coast.
While most North Pacific gray whales spend the summer in the shallow waters of the
northern and western Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean, some animals feed along the Pacific
coast. Photo-identification studies of these animals indicate that they move widely within
and between areas on the Pacific coast, are not always observed in the same area each
year, and may have several year gaps between re-sightings in studied areas.
Beluga Whale: Beluga whales are distributed throughout seasonally ice-covered Arctic
and sub Arctic waters of the Northern Hemisphere, and are closely associated with open
leads and polynyas in ice-covered regions. Depending on season and region, beluga
whales may occur in both offshore and coastal water of the Strait, with concentrations in
Norton Sound and Kasegaluk Lagoon. It is assumed that most beluga whales from these
summering areas overwinter in the Bering Sea, excluding those found in the northern
Gulf of Alaska. Seasonal distribution is affected by ice cover, tidal conditions, access to
prey, water temperature, and human interaction. During the winter, beluga whales occur
in offshore waters associated with pack ice. In the spring, they migrate to warmer coastal
estuaries, bays, and rivers for molting and calving. Annual migrations may cover
thousands of kilometers.
13. Minke Whale: In the North Pacific, minke whales occur from the Bering and Chukchi
Seas to the south near the equator. Minke whales are relatively common in the Bering
and Chukchi Seas and the inshore waters of the Gulf of Alaska, but are not considered
abundant in any other part of the eastern Pacific. Minke whales are known to penetrate
loose ice during the summer, and some individuals venture north of the Bering Strait.
Ship surveys in the central-eastern and southeastern Bering Sea in 1999 and 2000
resulted in new information about the distribution and relative abundance of minke
whales in these areas. Minke whale abundance estimates were similar in the central-
eastern Bering Sea and the southeastern Bering Sea. Minke whales occurred throughout
the area surveyed, but most sightings of minke whales in the central-eastern Bering Sea
occurred along the upper slope in waters 100-200 m deep; sightings in the southeastern
Bering Sea occurred along the north side of the Alaska Peninsula and were associated
with the 100 m contour near the Pribilof Islands. In the northern part of their range,
minke whales are believed to be migratory, whereas they appear to establish home ranges
in the inland waters of Washington and along central California.
Killer Whale: Killer whales have been observed in all oceans and seas of the world.
Although reported from tropical and offshore waters, killer whales occur at higher
densities in colder and more productive waters of both hemispheres, with the greatest
densities found at high latitudes. Killer whales are found throughout the North Pacific
and occur along the entire Alaskan coast. Seasonal and year-round occurrences have
been noted for killer whales throughout Alaska.
Humpback Whale: The humpback whale is distributed worldwide in all ocean basins,
though in the North Pacific it does not occur in Arctic waters. In winter, most humpback
whales occur in the subtropical and tropical waters of the northern and southern
hemispheres. Humpback whales in the high latitudes of the North Pacific are seasonal
migrants that feed on euphausiids and small schooling fishes. The historic feeding range
of humpback whales in the North Pacific encompassed coastal and inland waters around
the Pacific Rim from Point Conception, California, north to the Gulf of Alaska and the
Bering Sea, and west along the Aleutian Islands to the Kamchatka Peninsula and into the
Sea of Okhotsk. The humpback whale population in much of this range was considerably
reduced as a result of intensive commercial exploitation during the 20th century. Recent
surveys in the central-eastern and southeastern Bering Sea in 1999 and 2000 resulted in
new information about the distribution of humpback whales in these areas. The only
sightings of humpback whales in the central-eastern Bering Sea occurred southwest of St.
Lawrence Island; animals co-occurred with a group of killer whales and a large
aggregation of Arctic cod. A few sightings occurred in the southeast Bering Sea,
primarily outside Bristol Bay and north of the eastern Aleutian Islands. However, a
survey conducted in 2005 found numerous humpback whales north of the central
Aleutian Islands, reinforcing the idea that the Bering Sea is an important feeding area.
North Pacific Right Whale: Whaling records indicate that right whales in the North
Pacific ranged across the entire North Pacific north of 35N and occasionally as far south
as 20N. Before right whales in the North Pacific were heavily exploited by commercial
14. whalers, concentrations were found in the Gulf of Alaska, eastern Aleutian Islands,
south-central Bering Sea, Sea of Okhotsk, and Sea of Japan. Aerial and vessel surveys
for right whales have occurred in recent years in a portion of the southeastern Bering Sea
where right whales have been observed each summer since 1996. North Pacific right
whales are observed consistently in this area, although it is clear from historical and
Japanese sighting survey data that right whales often range outside this area and occur
elsewhere in the Bering Sea. Bottom-mounted acoustic recorders were deployed in the
southeastern Bering Sea and the northern Gulf of Alaska starting in 1999 to document the
seasonal distribution of right whale calls. Preliminary analysis of the data from the
recorders indicates that right whales remain in the southeastern Bering Sea from May
through November with peak call detection in September. Right whale calls were rarely
detected in the northwestern Gulf of Alaska in the late summer. Right whales have not
been observed outside the localized area in the southeastern Bering Sea during surveys
conducted for fishery management purposes which covered a broader area of Bristol Bay
and the Bering Sea. In 2004, a right whale was successfully tagged with a satellite-
monitored transmitter for 40 days, during which time the animal moved over a large part
of the southeastern Bering Sea including the outer shelf area. In September 2004,
information from the tag was used with acoustic detections to find the largest aggregation
of right whales observed in the eastern North Pacific since Soviet whaling. A minimum
of 17 individuals were identified by photo identification and genotyping from skin
biopsies. In 2006, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a final rule
designating two areas as northern right whale critical habitat, one in the Gulf of Alaska
and one in the Bering Sea (71 FR 38277, 6 July 2006).
Harbor Porpoise: In the eastern North Pacific Ocean, the harbor porpoise ranges from
Point Barrow, along the Alaska coast, and down the west coast of North America to Point
Conception, California. The harbor porpoise primarily frequents coastal waters. The
average density of harbor porpoises in Alaska appears to be less than that reported off the
west coast of the continental U.S.
Dall’s Porpoise: Dall’s porpoises are widely distributed across the entire North Pacific
Ocean. They are found over the continental shelf adjacent to the slope and over deep
(2,500+ m) oceanic waters. They have been sighted throughout the North Pacific as far
north as 65°N, and as far south as 28°N in the eastern North Pacific. Throughout most of
the eastern North Pacific they are present during all months of the year, although there
may be seasonal onshore-offshore movements along the west coast of the continental
Polar Bears
Polar bears in the Bering Strait region are subject to the movements and coverage of the
pack ice and annual ice. They are dependent on the ice as a platform for hunting and
resting, and giving birth. Ringed seals are their primary prey. Historically, polar bears of
the Chukchi Sea have spent most of their time on the annual ice in near-shore, shallow
waters over the productive continental shelf, which is associated with the shear zone and
the active ice adjacent to the shear zone. Sea ice and food availability are two important
factors affecting the distribution of polar bears. During the ice-covered season, bears use
15. the extent of the annual ice. The most extensive north–south movements of polar bears
are associated with the spring and fall ice movement. For example, during the 2006 ice-
covered season, six bears radio collared in the Beaufort Sea were located in the Chukchi
and Bering Seas as far south as 59o latitude, which was the farthest extent of the annual
Polar bear distribution during the open-water season is dependent upon the location of the
ice edge. The summer ice pack can be quite patchy and segments can be driven by wind
great distances carrying polar bears with them. For example, bears from both the
Southern Beaufort and Bering/Chukchi stocks overlap in their distribution around Point
Barrow and can move into surrounding areas depending on ice conditions. Recent
telemetry movement data are lacking for bears in the Chukchi Sea; however, an increased
trend by polar bears to use coastal habitats in the fall during open-water and freeze-up
conditions has been noted since 1992. Recently, the minimum sea ice extent in 2005 and
2007 suggest that bears will most likely be found during the open-water periods on the
sea ice or along the Chukotka coast.
Ice-dependent Pinnipeds
Pacific Walrus: Pacific walruses inhabit the shallow continental shelf waters of the
Bering and Chukchi seas and their distribution often varies markedly with the seasons.
During the late winter breeding season, walruses are found in areas of the Bering Sea
where open leads, polynyas, or areas of broken pack-ice occur. Significant winter
concentrations are normally found in the Gulf of Anadyr, the St. Lawrence Island
polynya, and in an area south of Nunivak Island. In the spring and early summer, most of
the population follows the lead systems that form along the coastlines of Alaska and
Chukotka and stay with the retreating pack ice northward into the Chukchi Sea; however,
several thousand animals, primarily adult males, remain in the Bering Sea, using coastal
haul-outs in Bristol Bay during the ice-free season. During the summer months, walruses
are widely distributed either on Russian coastal haulouts or on sea ice across the shallow
continental shelf waters of the Chukchi Sea. Significant summer concentrations are
normally found in the unconsolidated pack ice west of Point Barrow, and along the
northern coastline of Chukotka Russia, near Wrangel Island. As the ice edge advances
southward in the fall, walruses reverse their migration and re-group in large aggregations
on the Bering Sea pack ice.
Walruses rely on floating pack ice as a substrate for resting and giving birth and usually
occupy areas with natural openings. Walruses are not adapted to a strictly pelagic
existence and therefore are seldom found in areas of extensive, unbroken ice. Their
concentrations in winter tend to be in areas of divergent ice flow or along the margins of
persistent polynyas. Concentrations in summer tend to be in areas of unconsolidated
pack ice, usually within 100 km of the leading edge of the ice pack. When suitable pack-
ice is not available, walruses haul out to rest on land. Isolated sites, such as barrier
islands, points, and headlands, are most frequently occupied. Traditional walrus haul-out
sites in the eastern Chukchi Sea include Cape Thompson, Cape Lisburne, and Icy Cape.
In recent years, the Cape Lisburne haul-out site has seen regular use in late summer.
16. Numerous haul-outs also exist along the northern coastline of Chukotka, as well as on
Wrangel and Herald islands, which are considered important hauling grounds in late
summer especially in years when the pack ice retreats beyond the continental shelf.
Although capable of diving to deeper depths, walruses are for the most part found in
waters of 100 m or less, possibly because of the higher productivity of benthic foods in
shallow waters. The juxtaposition of ice over appropriate depths for feeding is especially
important for females with dependent calves that are not capable of deep diving or long
exposure in the water. The mobility of the pack ice is thought to help prevent walruses
from overexploiting their prey resource.
In May and June walruses migrate through the Bering Strait region along lead systems
that form along the coastlines of Alaska and Chukotka. During the summer months
walruses are widely distributed along the southern margin of the seasonal pack ice both in
U.S. and Russian waters. During August, the edge of the pack ice generally retreats
northward to about 71 oN, but in light ice years, the ice edge can retreat beyond 76 oN.
The sea ice normally reaches its minimum (northern) extent in September. It is unclear
how walruses respond in years when the sea ice retreats beyond the relatively shallow
continental shelf waters. In recent years several tens of thousands of walruses have been
reported congregating at coastal haulouts along the Russian coast in late summer.
Russian biologists attribute the formation of these coastal aggregations to diminishing sea
ice habitats in offshore regions. In 2007 a new sea ice minima record was established.
Sea ice had completely retreated from the continental shelf waters of the Chukchi Sea by
mid-August. Anecdotal reports from Russia indicate that as many as 100,000 walruses
congregated at coastal haulouts along the northern Chukotka coastline. An estimated 2-5
thousand walruses were also observed along the northwestern Alaska coast. The pack ice
usually advances rapidly southward in October, and most walruses are thought to have
moved into the Bering Sea by mid to late November where they winter in large
aggregations on the ice.
Spotted Seal: Spotted seals are distributed along the continental shelf of the Beaufort,
Chukchi, Bering, and Okhotsk Seas south to the northern Yellow Sea and western Sea of
Japan. Satellite tagging studies have provided considerable insight into the seasonal
movements of spotted seals. Those studies indicate that spotted seals migrate south from
the Chukchi Sea in October and pass through the Bering Strait in November. Seals
overwinter in the Bering Sea along the ice edge and make east-west movements along the
edge. During spring they tend to prefer small floes (i.e., < 20 m in diameter), and inhabit
mainly the southern margin of the ice, with movement to coastal habitats after the retreat
of the sea ice. In summer and fall, spotted seals use coastal haulouts regularly, and may
be found as far north as 69-72N in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. To the south, along
the west coast of Alaska, spotted seals are known to occur around the Pribilof Islands,
Bristol Bay, and the eastern Aleutian Islands. Of eight known breeding areas, three occur
in the Bering Sea.
17. Bearded Seal: Bearded seals are circumpolar in their distribution, extending from the
Arctic Ocean (85N) south to Hokkaido (45N) in the western Pacific. They generally
inhabit areas of shallow water (less than 200 m) that are at least seasonally ice covered.
During winter they are most common in broken pack ice and in some areas also inhabit
shorefast ice. In Alaskan waters, bearded seals are distributed over the continental shelf
of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas. Bearded seals are evidently most
concentrated from January to April over the northern part of the Bering Sea shelf. Recent
spring surveys along the Alaskan coast indicate that bearded seals tend to prefer areas of
between 70% and 90% sea ice coverage, and are typically more abundant 20-100 nm
from shore than within 20 nmi of shore, with the exception of high concentrations
nearshore to the south of Kivalina. Many of the seals that winter in the Bering Sea
migrate north through the Bering Strait from late April through June, and spend the
summer along the ice edge in the Chukchi Sea. The overall summer distribution is quite
broad, with seals rarely hauled out on land, and some seals do not migrate but remain in
open water areas of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. An unknown proportion of the
population migrates southward from the Chukchi Sea in late fall and winter, away from
shore during that season as well.
Ringed Seal: Ringed seals are found throughout the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering Seas.
as far south as Bristol Bay in years of extensive ice coverage. During late April through
June, ringed seals are distributed throughout their range from the southern ice edge
northward. Preliminary results from recent surveys conducted in the Chukchi Sea in
May-June 1999 and 2000 indicate that ringed seal density is higher in near shore ice and
lower in offshore pack ice. It is believed there is a net movement of seals northward with
the ice edge in late spring and summer. Thus, ringed seals occupying the Bering and
southern Chukchi Seas in winter apparently are migratory, but details of their movements
are unknown.
Ribbon Seal: Ribbon seals inhabit the North Pacific Ocean and adjacent parts of the
Arctic Ocean. In Alaska waters, ribbon seals are found in the open sea, on the pack ice,
and only rarely on shorefast ice. They range northward from Bristol Bay in the Bering
Sea into the Chukchi and western Beaufort seas. From late March to early May, ribbon
seals inhabit the Bering Sea ice front. They are most abundant in the northern part of the
ice front in the central and western parts of the Bering Sea. As the ice recedes in May to
mid-July the seals move farther to the north in the Bering Sea, where they haul out on the
receding ice edge and remnant ice. There is little known about the range of ribbon seals
during the rest of the year. Recent sightings and a review of the literature suggest that
many ribbon seals migrate into the Chukchi Sea for the summer.
Overall, the hazards of ship noise and disturbance on marine mammals near the Bering
Strait, and in Arctic waters in general, need to be addressed further through relevant
international organizations.
18. III.B Seabirds
The Bering Strait area is a prolific location for colonial nesting seabirds (Figure 9).
Many colonies are clustered around the Bering Strait area, making it a vulnerable location
for ecological disruptions such as human disturbance, boat traffic, oil spills, commercial
fisheries (bycatch) and other negative environmental impacts due to the amount of birds
nesting, foraging, and resting there.
Colony Summary
Seabird colony information from the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) North
Pacific Seabird Colony Catalog indicates that the majority of birds nesting in the Bering
Strait area are alcids (11,839,095 out of the 12,558,990 total nesting seabirds in the
Bering Strait colonies). Alcids are diving seabirds which forage offshore for prey,
making them vulnerable to oil spills and boat traffic. Aethia species (auklets) comprise
the majority of alcids present in Bering Strait colonies (9,820,027) with least auklets
being the most abundant (7,250,194) followed by crested and parakeet auklets (2,415,457
and 154,376 respectively). Auklets nest in talus areas either in rock crevices or earth and
rock burrows. Uria species (murres) are the next most numerous alcids with 1,345,414
birds in the Bering Strait colonies followed by puffins, guillemots and a scattering of
Outside of the alcids, Northern fulmars comprise 417,957 of the individuals in the Bering
Strait colonies. The Laridae family, consisting of gulls and terns, composes 283,090 of
the total colonial nesting seabirds in the Bering Strait colonies. Finally, cormorants
(Phalacrocorax spp.) compose almost 19,000 of the colonial nesting seabirds in the
Bering Strait colonies.
At Sea Observations
Information from the USFWS North Pacific Pelagic Seabird Observer Program (funded
by the North Pacific Research Board and USFWS, with NOAA-Fisheries and NSF-
funded studies providing survey platforms) document extensive use of the Bering Strait
region by sea birds. Information summarized below is from surveys conducted by
USFWS in 2006 and 2007.
During spring and early summer, we see low numbers of circumpolar or Russian
species (slaty-backed gull, Ross’s gull, ivory gull, black guillemot, glaucous gull).
Once ice breaks up, we see more auklets (mainly crested and least), common and
thick-billed murres, black-legged kittiwakes, eiders). By summer, with ice gone
from the Chirikov Basin, we found very high densities of auklets, plus kittiwakes,
murres, shearwaters, and a variety of other species (up to ~ 50 spp). Of note, on
23 March 2008, during surveys being conducted from the USCGC Healy,
observers found the wintering spot for spectacled eiders, with estimates ranging
from 250,000 -350,000, about 80 km off of SW Cape on St. Lawrence Island.
We observed several species of interest in the Arctic in 2007 including Dovekies,
Kittlitz's murrelets, black guillemots, loons, and eiders. In October 2007, 60
19. Kittlitz’s murrelets were counted on transect off of Pt. Barrow and several were
observed south of Pt. Hope, suggesting this is a fall staging or migration area. In
spring & early summer of 2006, parakeet, crested & least auklets (Aethia spp)
were near colonies on St. Lawrence Is (above). In later summer, once ice
retreated, they were abundant farther north in the Chirikov Basin (below).
Ancient murrelets and dovekies were also observed in low numbers in the Bering
Strait region.
Short-tailed shearwaters are abundant throughout the Bering Sea during summer,
when they come to Alaska to feed during their non-breeding season (shearwaters
breed in the southern hemisphere, near New Zealand and Australia). However,
during the fall of 2007, we also observed shearwaters throughout the Bering Strait
region, indicating that this region may be an important final feeding area before
shearwaters migrate south.
During a Canadian cruise with seabird observers conducting surveys from the CCGS Sir
Wilfrid Laurier in 2007 between Dartmouth, NS and Victoria, BC, the Bering Strait had
among the highest densities of birds encountered throughout the Canadian and U.S. arctic
and the Bering Sea (Gjerdrum et al., 2008).
Spectacled and Steller’s Eiders
As species listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, Spectacled and
Steller’s eiders are of particular interest. These sea ducks spend a considerable amount of
time at sea. In the late summer and fall after breeding in northern and western Alaska
and Arctic Russia, spectacled eiders gather in flocks in coastal waters to molt. During
molting, the birds become flightless as their old, worn feathers are replaced with new
ones. Four principle molting areas have been identified. Two molting areas on the coast
of Alaska are eastern Norton Sound and Ledyard Bay, between Cape Lisburne and Point
Lay. On the coast of Russia, eiders molt in Mechigmenskiy Bay on the Chukotka
Peninsula and an area between the Indigirka and Kolyma river deltas. Eastern Norton
Sound appears to be the primary molting area for females nesting on the Yukon-
Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska, while females nesting in northern Alaska migrate to either
Ledyard Bay or Mechigmenskiy Bay to molt. Males from all three breeding areas have
been found molting in Ledyard Bay, Mechigmenskiy Bay, and in the area between the
Indigirka and Kolyma river deltas. Molting areas are typically less than 36 meters deep.
By late October, spectacled eiders follow coastal and offshore migration corridors
through the Bering and Chukchi seas to offshore wintering areas. The primary wintering
area is in the central Bering Sea south and southwest of St. Lawrence Island. Critical
habitat has been identified for spectacled eiders in Ledyard Bay, Norton Sound and south
of St. Lawrence Island, as shown in the following web site:
Steller's eiders breed in northern Russia and northern and western Alaska. Although
formerly considered locally common at a few sites on both the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
and the arctic coastal plain of Alaska, they have nearly disappeared from most nesting
areas in Alaska. The current primary nesting range in Alaska consists of a portion of the
20. central arctic coastal plain between Wainwright and Prudhoe Bay, primarily near Barrow.
In Russia, Steller's eiders nest along the Arctic coast from the Chukotka Peninsula west to
the Taimyr, Gaydan, and Yamal peninsulas. Most Steller's eiders breeding in Alaska and
Russia migrate south after breeding to molt along the coast of Alaska from Nunivak
Island to Cold Bay, primarily in Izembek Lagoon, Nelson Lagoon, and near the Seal
Islands. At least 150,000 Steller's eiders, the majority of the world population, winter in
Alaska from the eastern Aleutian Islands to Lower Cook Inlet. During their northward
spring migration from wintering areas in Alaska, Steller's eiders can be found in large
flocks close to shore from northern Bristol Bay to Hooper Bay. Critical habitat has been
identified for Steller’s eider along the Yukon/Kuskokwim delta, as shown in the
following web site:
III.C Fish and shellfish
South of the Bering Strait, the Bering Sea contains some of the largest groundfish
populations in the world and freshwater rivers are home to millions of spawning salmon.
North of the Bering Strait, the Arctic is not nearly as productive, although the
combination of more time with open water and far higher nutrient inputs into the Chukchi
Sea relative to the Beaufort Sea generates much higher biological productivity in the
Although a 1990 Arctic fish survey obtained catches of 119 “species,” many of these are
species considered to be at the “tails” of their respective geographic distributions, others
appear to have very small, and possibly not self-sustaining, populations, and others have
no commercial, subsistence or recreational value. Based on very minimal data, it appears
that relatively abundant species in federal waters include snow crab (which are taken in
large numbers in the adjoining Eastern Bering Sea and are a prized commercial species in
that region), Arctic cod and saffron cod (not significant commercial species in the Bering
Sea but targets of commercial fisheries elsewhere in the world), and sculpins (not a
significant commercial species in the Eastern Bering Sea although they are abundant in
that region).
Some research indicates that primary production in shallow Arctic Seas may not convert
directly to fish biomass. In the Chukchi Sea, some authors suggest that the close
coupling of primary production with benthic invertebrate biomass results from short food
chains and little grazing in the pelagic zone, thus leaving little energy for high fish
biomass, but considerable energy for large benthic foraging mammals, such as walruses,
bearded seals and gray whales. In the Beaufort Sea, the total annual fish production
estimated here corresponds closely to the estimated fish consumption of vertebrate
predators in that ecosystem. An estimated 123,000 tons of Arctic cod were required to
feed late 1970’s populations of Belugas, ringed seals, marine birds, and Arctic cod
themselves in the Beaufort Sea. Belugas and ringed seals in particular were dependent on
Arctic cod for a majority of their consumption, and birds for half their consumption.
It is unknown what stock of red king crab, for which there is a small fishery in state
waters, occurs in the southeastern Chukchi Sea. It is possible this stock is related to the
21. Norton Sound red king crab that occurs south of Bering Strait in the northern Bering Sea,
but additional research and stock identification work is required to obtain this
information. The fishery has occurred infrequently, and so little information is available.
When it does occur, it is prosecuted during the open water season from small vessels, or
in winter using snow machines or dog sleds on ice-covered waters. The fishery uses pot
gear, and fishermen involved are primarily based in Kotzebue. The lack of information
about some fish and shellfish stocks near the Bering Strait adds to the difficulty of
assessing the effects of possible invasive species in ballast water discharges near the
Small salmon populations in Northwest Arctic rivers support a small commercial fishery
for chum salmon, although other fish species are incidentally harvested, in the Kotzebue
Sound region, and are an important component of subsistence fishing in the region. All 5
species of salmon have been seen in Arctic waters, although only chum salmon in any
significant quantities. Subsistence fishing is an important part of the economic,
nutritional, and cultural lifestyle of local residents of the Arctic and occurs near coastal
communities and also in nearshore areas during open water seasons and some activities
occur to a limited extent in this area during winter. In winter fishing is generally
conducted by gill nets threaded through holes in the ice or by jigging. In summer, rod and
reel, gill net, and jigging are techniques used to capture fish. Species harvested for
subsistence purposes include Dolly Varden char, whitefishes, Arctic and saffron cod, and
IV. Indigenous Marine Use
The Bering Strait region is home to three distinct linguistic and cultural groups of Eskimo
people in Alaska; the Inupiaq, Central Yupik, and Siberian Yupik on Saint Lawrence
Island. The coastline of the Bering Strait region has been continually occupied by
indigenous peoples for several thousand years. Human populations (>10,000) in this
region have been dependent on marine resources, including mammals, fish, birds, macro
algae, as well as shellfish and other invertebrates. The hunting of large marine mammals
has been the primary adaptive subsistence strategy of Bering Strait human populations for
over 1,000 years.
Currently, the population of the Bering Strait region is >10,000 people with Alaska
Natives comprising more than 3/4th the population. There are 15 year-round villages
outside of Nome that range in population from approximately 150 up to >750.
The use of different marine resources occurs throughout the year, but changes seasonally
with the resource migrations and life history stages. Regions where marine resources are
gathered are not limited to beachcast, coastal waters, and nearshore waters, but may
include offshore waters. For example, to adapt to the rapidly changing accessibility and
availability of sea ice, hunting of large marine mammals (ex. walruses) can take place up
to 50-80 miles offshore. Travel to these offshore locations is typically done in small open
boats and a hunt can span several days before a vessel returns to its port of origin.
22. Marine resources are of vital and critical importance to peoples of the Bering Strait
region. Not surprisingly, all present day communities in the Bering Strait region, except
White Mountain, are situated on the shore of the Bering or Chukchi seas and are strongly
tied to subsistence uses. This maritime reliance for subsistence in the Bering Strait region
is very significant and for marine mammal species such as walruses, whales, and seals,
comprises a significant portion of the total U.S. harvest. Additional marine-based
resources are obtained through beachcombing, clamming, gathering seabird eggs, fishing,
birding, gathering greens, etc.
For each group/tribe in the Bering Strait region, there are socio-economic, cultural, and
political differences and similarities to be considered unique to each within the region.
All the coastal communities exhibit similarities in terms of broad utilization of all
available marine resources for, but not limited to, nutritional reliance, cultural customs,
and economic dependence (ex. clothing, equipment, handicrafts, commercial fishing and
hunting, and limited ecotourism). The general patterns of large marine mammal hunting
and reliance on other marine resources (ex. fishes, crabs, birds, beachcast invertebrates,
macro algae) persist to the present time, despite technological changes.
The most recent description of traditional subsistence use of the U.S. side of the Bering
Strait region is included in Kawerak’s January 2008 North Pacific Research Board report
“A Comprehensive Subsistence Use Study of the Bering Strait Region,” with additional
funding provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). The
comprehensive harvest survey was approved by the Tribes of Shishmaref, Wales, Brevig
Mission, Teller, White Mountain, Golovin, Elim, Koyuk, Unalakleet, Gambell,
Savoonga, Stebbins, & Saint Michael. The community of Shaktoolik did not want to be
involved in the survey. Due to logistics and timing, the community of Diomede did not
participate. Nome was not included in the survey because of the large size of the
population was cost-prohibitive. The locations of these communities are illustrated in
Figure 2.
Figure 11 graphically demonstrates the maritime reliance for subsistence in the Bering
Strait region with over 85% of the harvested resources being marine-derived. The
regional reliance on marine mammals is very significant. For species such as walruses,
whales, and seals, the Bering Strait region comprises a significant portion of the total
U.S. harvest of marine mammals.
23. Twelve Communities Combined
2% Non-Salmon Fish
Other Land
Mammals 1%
Plants &
Marine Mammals
Berries 3%
Birds &
Caribou Eggs 3%
Figure 11. Harvest Composition of Resources, 2005-2006, Twelve Communities Combined.
Source: Kawerak, Inc., et al. 2007.
Table 1 illustrates the high reliance the communities closest to proposed vessel traffic in
the Bering Strait (Gambell, Savoonga, Shishmaref, and Wales) have to ocean-based
resources. St. Lawrence Island communities (i.e. Gambell and Savoonga) were most
dependent on marine resources with the marine mammal harvest totaling over one million
kilograms. (The location of these coastal communities is shown in Figure 2.) Over 95%
of their total subsistence harvests were marine-based resources (ex. Seabirds, eggs,
fishes, and marine mammals). Shishmaref (on Sarichef Island) and Wales (on the
mainland) demonstrated a high reliance on marine resources with over 75% of their total
harvest derived from the sea. In contrast, the coastal communities of southern Norton
Sound, especially Stebbins and Unalakleet demonstrated a higher reliance on fishes,
especially salmon, which is indicative of the highly productive river influences.
Though future predictions and current environmental patterns indicate a profound and
long term ecosystem change to the Bering Strait region, human reliance on marine
resources for subsistence remain essential. The central importance of the cooperative
hunting of large marine mammals and the use of all available marine resources for
nutritional, cultural, and economic needs will persist in the Bering Strait. Given the
ecosystem changes and increasing vessel traffic around the Bering Strait, information on
traditional marine use could be collected and compiled again, and shared with coastal
Potential conflicts between increased ship traffic and indigenous marine resource uses of
the Bering Strait region include but are not limited to an increased amount of:
24.  Ambient and underwater ship noise - recognized as one of the primary concerns
to marine mammal populations, especially within the narrow and shallow
migration corridor;
 Ship strikes on large marine mammals;
 Entanglement of large marine mammals from commercial fishing gear;
 Potential for collision between coastal and offshore large ship traffic and small
open boats using marine resources;
 Pollution affecting the availability and quality of offshore, coastal, and beachcast
marine resources due in part but not limited to:
o lack of navigational and rescue infrastructure in an extremely challenging
physical and marine environment;
o lack of infrastructure to secure a large vessel in distress;
o lack of infrastructure to assess and respond to an oil and/or chemical spill;
o language (ex. English, Russian, Siberian Yupik) and cultural
communication barriers; and
o lack of a communication protocol between Russia and the United States.
25. Table 1. Estimated Kilograms Harvested by Community and Resource in the Bering Strait Region during 2005-2006.
Estimated Total Kilograms Harvested by Community and Resource
Non-Salmon Other Land Marine Birds & Plants & Total
Community Salmon Fish Caribou Moose Mammals Mammals Eggs Berries Reindeer Kilograms
Brevig Mission 9,394.7 721.0 2,646.6 1,935.8 609.4 4,607.0 519.0 3,740.3 - 24,173.9
Elim 17,656.5 12,861.8 9,262.8 6,029.3 158.3 31,230.0 840.0 6,101.7 - 84,140.5
Gambell 15,816.7 2,642.9 0.0 0.0 64.2 476,009.3 6,753.5 3,062.2 - 504,348.7
Koyuk 14,116.2 3,506.1 27,559.8 6,911.3 27.5 8,460.4 1,180.8 5,165.9 - 66,928.1
Savoonga 6,232.2 25,466.9 0.0 0.0 0.0 551,271.7 24,476.1 5,709.6 11,349.5 624,505.9
Shishmaref 11,300.7 13,547.2 51,028.9 3,879.8 5,815.9 182,817.5 5,857.2 11,612.2 - 285,859.4
St. Michael 13,127.7 9,637.3 1,073.4 4,262.0 24.4 14,411.7 3,909.4 5,792.1 - 52,237.9
Stebbins 41,805.7 14,663.5 1,302.0 6,462.2 1,602.4 41,773.6 8,321.3 9,393.4 - 125,324.2
Teller 14,675.9 3,508.5 0.0 1,106.8 46.1 21,180.7 539.9 1,975.0 - 43,033.0
Unalakleet 57,181.4 36,982.5 34,161.8 762.0 477.2 28,320.2 3,656.0 11,301.2 - 172,842.4
Wales 3,857.6 890.5 454.0 772.5 1,704.3 14,689.9 238.9 1,672.7 - 24,280.4
White Mountain 8,507.3 4,871.0 3,095.6 2,939.3 924.8 14,307.0 679.2 1,983.1 - 37,307.3
Total 213,672.7 129,299.2 130,584.8 35,061.0 11,454.6 1,389,079.1 56,971.3 67,509.4 11,349.5 2,044,981.6
Source: Kawerak, Inc., North Pacific Research Board, Alaska Department of Fish & Game, 2005-2006 Comprehensive Subsistence Harvest Survey, Bering
Strait/Norton Sound Region.
26. Additional information on fish, invertebrate, birds, land animals, plants, and macroalgae
utilized by Bering Strait communities is listed in the report entitled “A Comprehensive
Subsistence Use Study of the Bering Strait Region.”
V. Commercial Marine Uses: Fishing, Oil & Gas, Minerals, Tourism, and Shipping
Since quantitative information on commercial marine vessels that steam through the
Bering Strait is not available, this section summarizes information about local ports and
marine activities near the strait and about vessels that transit the strait without stopping at
a port on either side of it. The season for marine shipping is limited to the ice-free
months in the Bering Strait.
V.A Commercial Vessels that Use Local Ports
This section summarizes separately the information on ports near the Bering Strait and on
marine activities that are conducted near the strait.
V.A.1 Ports near the Bering Strait
In the Bering Strait region there are three primary U.S. ports and two additional lesser
traffic areas. The primary ports are Nome, Kotzebue and the DeLong Mountain
Transportation System (DMTS) port serving the Red Dog Mine. The other two sites are
St. Michael and the entrance to the Yukon River.
Nome is the U.S. supply, service, and transportation center of the Seward Peninsula.
Vessel traffic through the Nome Port covers the largest amount of commercial and
tourism traffic for the region. Traffic at Nome and Cape Nome is defined as Nome for
this study. Cape Nome is a large rock quarry that in some years, depending on
construction around western Alaska, ships large quantities of armor stone and crushed
rock throughout the region. Along with mining, government services (direct or tribally
contracted) provide the majority of employment opportunities around the Nome region.
As in all Alaska rural areas, subsistence is an activity that also contributes to the local
economy. Scheduled flights from the Nome airport go to Anchorage, and chartered
flights go to Provideniya and Anadyr in Russia.
The draft at the Nome Port is -22.5 MLLW (Mean Lower Low Water) now that the
recent construction is complete. The entire seaward side of the Nome Port is protected by
a 3,350-foot-long sea wall of granite boulders or armor stone. The Nome Port berthing
facilities accommodate vessels up to 20 feet of draft with only a 1.4 foot diurnal tide
range. Construction continues in the summer of 2008 to make mooring improvements on
the deep-water docks and expand the small boat facilities in the Nome Small Boat
Harbor. The regional facility will have improved boat moorage and offloading facilities.
The Army Corps of Engineers just completed a $442 million project providing a new
harbor channel entrance and protective breakwater east of the existing Causeway. Local
27. AMSA Bering Sea Region Case Study
development groups (primarily Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, the
City of Nome and the U.S. Economic & Developmental Administration) have provided
the funding for the completed portions of the project. Tasks to be completed in 2008
include a second seasonal floating dock, a boat launch, and a low-level sheet pile dock
for small vessel maintenance. The new east breakwater and causeway spur allow for
more vessel loading and unloading and therefore fewer shipping delays. While these
facilities have been improved greatly during recent years, they are probably not suitable
for the rapid transfer of cargo from regular cargo vessels to ice-breaking cargo vessels
that could transit the Arctic Ocean.
The following are research and cruise vessels that made Nome one of their 2007
destinations, according to the Nome harbormaster records:
June 25 Clipper Odyssey/Cruise Ship
22-25 Acushnet/Coast Guard
26 Adrian Flanagan/Sailboat NE Passage
July 15 Spirit of Oceanus/Cruise Ship
Aug 3-5 Oshuru-Maru/Japanese Research
15-18 Oshuru-Maru/Japanese Research
26-27 Sever/Russian Research
Sept 5-6 Hanseatic/Cruise Ship
5 Sever/Russian Research
6 Cloud Nine/Sailboat from NW Passage
12 Spar/Coast Guard
17 Oscar Dyson/NOAA Research
19 Luck Dragon/Sailboat from NW Passage
Oct 10 Berserk III/Sailboat from NW Passage (wintering here)
10 Two Vessels/Oil Support from Chukchi
This list does not include commercial fishing vessels, which are vessels approximately
30-32 feet in length that operate out of Nome’s Small Boat Harbor. It also does not
include all cargo and fuel vessels, which are the main port activity for Nome.
Another U.S. port near the Bering Strait is Kotzebue, the hub community for the
Kotzebue Sound and Northwest Arctic region. Retail services, transportation, mining,
medical and other businesses provide year-round income. Vessel activity in Kotzebue
consists mainly of cargo/fuel vessels to supply the hub and the regional villages. The only
dock belongs to Crowley Marine Services and is very shallow. Most deep water vessels
anchor at the sea buoy and have their cargo lightered to the dock. Northland Services,
Delta Western, Alaska Logistics, Bowhead Transportation, and several other construction
companies move cargo in and out of this region.
DeLong Mountain Transportation System (DMTS)
DMTS supports the Red Dog Mine, which is the largest producer of zinc concentrate in
the world. Red Dog mine and port is the largest private employer in the entire region
28. AMSA Bering Sea Region Case Study
with 480 full time jobs. The DMTS deep water port was constructed specifically for
moving cargo and fuel into the site and shipping ore out from the Red Dog mine. Further
information on shipping associated with the DMTS is included in Section V.B.
Port Clarence
Located between the Bering Strait and Nome harbor, Port Clarence is the closest deep
water port to the Bering Strait that is located on the U.S. mainland. Although only about
2.6-square kilometers (one-square mile), it is relatively deep (over 12 m or 40’). It is the
site of a U.S. Coast Guard Loran station that has a private, paved runway. It is not only
accessible by ship and plane but also by vehicle - directly from Nome during snow-free
months (Nome-Teller Highway). This State of Alaska DOT-maintained gravel road (~70
miles) is used for general traffic and freight/fuel deliveries to the community of Teller -
located on the eastern shore. The port was used historically by the commercial whaling
ships as a place to wait for sea ice to clear out of the Strait. It was also used historically
by the USCGC NORTHWIND and STATEN ISLAND, and may be useful for the staging
of emergency operations in the Arctic Ocean. Port Clarence is one of the only U.S.
harbors for medium to deep draft vessels near the Bering Strait, as noted in Chapter 6 on
the arctic environment.
St. Michael, Yukon River Entrance north mouth
St. Michael was previously a hub for local barge traffic. It sits at the north mouth of the
Yukon River, but has a shallower draft (6 feet) and is not extensively used for
transshipment for Yukon River traffic.
Yukon River Entrance south mouth
Crowley barges fuel and supplies from Nenana and from Seattle to Yukon River villages
through this entrance, which has a deeper draft (10+ feet at high tide). Crowley makes 6
trips a year to the lower Yukon, 14 trips to the middle Yukon, and 3 trips to the upper
Yukon with their 175’ long barges. Traffic has been steady for the past 10 years and is
not expected to increase significantly unless some major economic development activity
Russian ports
The main ports on the Russian side are just south of the Bering Strait, as they are on the
U.S. side. The three largest ports are Provideniya, Anadyr, and Egvekinot. Provideniya
is a former Soviet military port with a water depth of less than 10m. The population was
about 2,500 in 2002, and the residents are mainly Yupik. Anadyr is a port on the Gulf of
Anadyr, and is the eastern most town in Russia. The population was about 11,000 in
2002. The water depth in the port is less than 7m, and it might be closed to foreign
vessels. Egvekinot is a town with a population of about 2,500 in 2002. The water depth
in the port is less than 10m, and it also might be closed to foreign vessels. There are
charter flights from both Provideniya and Anadyr across the strait to Nome, Alaska.
Additional information on ports in eastern Russia is located in Section
The locations of Provideniya, Anadyr, and Egvekinot are illustrated in Figure 2 and the
following web sites:
29. AMSA Bering Sea Region Case Study; and
V.A.2 Commercial Marine Activities and Vessels near the Bering Strait
Vessels use the area ports to support a variety of activities, including commercial and
subsistence fishing, subsistence hunting of marine mammals, mining, local shipping,
tourism, and scientific research.
Commercial Fishing
At present, there are no large commercial fisheries in the case study region and most boat
traffic is limited to small skiffs close to the villages. The existing fisheries are important
to the local economy and to this report for environmental reasons, but local traffic is not
expected to expand significantly in the next 20 years.
In the federal waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of the Bering Strait, the
North Pacific Fishery Management Council does not have a Fishery Management Plan
(FMP) that provides comprehensive authority over fishery management issues. Two of
the Council’s FMPs (the crab FMP and scallop FMP) cover part of the Chukchi Sea north
of Bering Strait to Point Hope, but there are limited fisheries in the U.S. federal waters
and no routine fish surveys are currently conducted in the region. However, because
commercial species appear to be migrating north, the Council is interested in exploring
policy and management options to prepare for future changes. Currently, the only known
commercial EEZ fishery in the Alaskan Arctic is for red king crab in the southern part of
the Chukchi Sea. About 15 crab boats make Nome their home port. Most tend to be 32-
footers (former Bristol Bay salmon boats). There are also about six crab boats in
Unalakleet, four in Shaktoolik, one in Golovin, and one in Elim.
Some small-scale commercial and subsistence salmon fisheries occur in this region
within state waters (up to three miles off shore) and primarily in Norton Sound south of
the Bering Strait. For salmon, the permit holders fish open skiffs, usually about 20 feet
and larger. The largest is usually about 27 feet. Those skiffs are "homeported" in the
village the permit holder is from. Most are in the villages of Elim, Shaktoolik and
Unalakleet. The Moses Point Subsistence salmon fishery is next to Elim and the
Shaktoolik Subdistrict is next to Shaktoolik. A tender runs the salmon to Unalakleet for
processing. Salmon fishing has not occurred in the Golovin Subdistrict since 2001 and in
the Nome Subdistrict since 1996.
During 2007 there was a commercial salmon fishing season in the Port Clarence District
for the first time in over 40 years. Three vessels from Teller participated. In 2008 there
may be some participation from Brevig Mission.
Preliminary information from the ADF&G indicates that the 2007 combined commercial
harvest of all salmon species ranked third in the last ten seasons in Norton Sound and first
with the pink salmon harvest excluded. The number of commercial permits fished (71)
30. AMSA Bering Sea Region Case Study
was the second highest in this century (10 more than in 2006), but eighth lowest on
record. Sixty of those permits are held by Nome residents. This total included 11 permit
holders from the Moses Point Subdistrict. Prior to this year, commercial salmon fishing
had not occurred in the Moses Point Subdistrict since 2001. The previous 5-year average
was 36 permits fished and the previous 10-year average was 55 permits fished.
The 2007 fishery value for permit holders of $572,195 was well above the 5-year average
of $175,196 and the 10-year average of $183,719. The average value per permit holder
was $8,059, a record without adjusting for inflation.
Only one salmon buyer operated in Norton Sound during the 2007 season. The
Unalakleet fish plant operated by Norton Sound Seafood Products was the base of
commercial fisheries operations. Salmon were delivered both to the Unalakleet dock and
tendered from the neighboring Shaktoolik and Moses Point Subdistricts. Salmon caught
in the Port Clarence District were brought to the Nome plant for processing. Only a few
of the fishermen that work the crab & halibut fishery also did salmon, and they typically
use their open 18-24 foot skiffs.
In Kotzebue north of the Bering Strait the salmon fishery uses skiffs similar to those in
Norton Sound. Since Kotzebue Sound is very shallow, the only barges or tenders that can
come into Kotzebue must have a very shallow draft. Occasionally someone will do some
crab fishing out of Kotzebue, the last time in 2005. The "crab boat" in Kotzebue would be
an open skiff. Harvests from previous years are minimal and most catches are
confidential as less than four fishers participated in the fishery.
During most of the 2000s the Kotzebue Sound commercial salmon fishery has been
limited by buyer capacity. In 2002 and 2003 no buyer was onsite. In 2004 and 2005 one
onsite buyer was present and fish were processed locally. Beginning in 2006, the new
buyer shipped the catch by air in the round to Anchorage for processing. In recent years
the ADF&G opened the commercial fishery continuously and allowed the buyer to set the
fishing time for their fleet. Forty-six permit holders sold fish to the buyer, including one
catcher-seller who sold fish to the buyer and also sold some of his catch from his boat to
Kotzebue area residents. The number of permit holders that fished has been in the low
40s in the past three years, and is less than half the permit holders that fished in the
1990s, and well below the nearly 200 permit holders that fished in the early 1980s.
Boats used in this fishery are primarily skiffs and small boats under 20 feet in length.
There are no docks in Kotzebue open to the public, and most boats are either beached or
moored close to shore. Vessels are generally shipped in by barge or air.
Barge traffic currently provides fuel and supplies for local mining activity on the Seward
Peninsula, which has several highly mineralized areas that have potential for mining and
if developed, could result in increases to local traffic. Most of the mining activity to date
has been placer mining for gold, and some small gold mines continue to provide small-
scale employment. The largest mine is the Rock Creek gold mine. Among other minerals
known to occur in commercial quantities are copper, lead, platinum, silver and zinc.
31. AMSA Bering Sea Region Case Study
Mineral exploration and claim staking on state and federal lands have been actively
pursued since the 1970s. The Nome area has about 17,000 mining claims. Alaska Native
corporation lands are also very active for mineral exploration. Many, if not most, of the
Native corporation lands were selected because of their mineral potential and the
potential to create jobs and other economic opportunities for their shareholders. Gravel
resources are valuable for developing regional infrastructure. Most gravel is shipped by
barge to nearby communities that do not have local sources of gravel acceptable for
construction projects.
NovaGold Resource Inc. is in the process of developing a new mine at Rock Creek
(appropriately 1/3 of the proposed acreage is owned by Sitnasuak and Bering Strait
Native Corporations and will be leased to the economic development project). There are
two project components: the Rock Creek Mine/Mill Complex located about 6 miles
northwest of Nome in the Snake River watershed, and the Big Hurrah Mine located about
42 miles east of Nome in the Solomon River watershed. Both are proposed to be
developed as open pit gold mines by the project applicant, Alaska Gold Company (AGC),
a wholly owned subsidiary of NovaGold Resources, Inc.
Rock Creek has the potential to be a large ore deposit, with an estimated 720,000 ounces
of gold, and production of 100,000 ounces per year. The Rock Creek Mine/Mill Complex
as planned includes an open pit mine, two non-acid-generating development rock
stockpiles, a gold recovery plant, and a paste tailings storage facility. Standard drilling
and blasting techniques would be used to break the ore. Ore milling rates would be about
2.75 million tons/year, while development rock stripping volumes would be in the range
of 4.4 to 5.5 million tons/year. Milling would include crushing, screening, gravity
separation, flotation, and a cyanide vat leach process. The expected mine life is 4.5
years, with potential for additional discovery and extended mine life. The project will
employ 135 employees with an $8.5 million payroll. A local-hire preference is in place.
The produced gold would be sent outside by U.S. Mail or courier.
The recent improvements to the Nome Port put it in a good position to export the gravel
output from the Rock Creek Mine to locations around the world. The gravel output is a
huge, untapped resource that has value not only to regional communities, but to world
The Big Hurrah site will be treated like a rock quarry where a smaller quantity, but higher
grade, of ore will be mined. The proposed facility consists of a small open pit gold mine,
a non-acid-generating development rock stockpile, a temporary stockpile for acid-
generating development rock that would later be backfilled into the pit, and an ore
stockpile. Ore would be trucked to the Rock Creek Mine/Mill Complex to be milled and
processed. Ore would be mined at a 1,500 tons/day rate on a seasonal basis for a total of
approximately 270,000 tons/year for 4 years. The lands surrounding the site belong to the
Bering Straits Native Corporation and the Solomon Native Corporation.
After the Rock Creek Mine is established, there are plans to placer-mine the Monroeville
area (across the Nome-Beltz Highway from Icy View) as well.
32. AMSA Bering Sea Region Case Study
An estimated four trillion tons of high quality bituminous coal—about one-ninth of the
world's known coal reserves and one-third of the U.S. reserves—lie in the Northern
Alaska Coal Province, a broad belt extending 300 miles eastwards from the Chukchi Sea.
There are approximately 2 billion tons of high rank bituminous coal in the Western
Arctic. To date, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation has concentrated its studies on
one coal deposit in this region. The initial deposit targeted for development is located
only six miles from tidewater on the Chukchi Sea about halfway between Pt. Hope and
Pt. Lay. 68 million tons of measured coal reserves have been delineated for underground
mining, along with an approximate 23 million tons of coal suitable for surface mining
peripheral to the underground mine block. Through continued drilling an additional 50 to
100 million tons could become proven for this one deposit. No actual development is
anticipated in the near future. Further information about activity at the Red Dog mine is
included in Section IV.B.
Local Shipping
Since western Alaska is not connected to the state or national road system, all goods to
regional communities are either flown or barged in. Local Alaska highways lead to
Teller, Council and the Kougarok River with a few short connections, including the
newly improved Glacier Creek road. Between 2000 and 2006 approximately 50-80,000
tons of gravel and 15-20,000 tons of cargo went through the Port of Nome. Combined
revenue from cargo, fuel & gravel is approx $600,000 a year, with the majority of
revenue coming from fuel.
Although marine freight to the region is seasonal, it is more economical than airfreight.
After ice breaks up in May, barges visit coastal and river villages bringing cargo, fuel,
construction materials, food, etc. These goods are delivered in bulk to Nome and
Kotzebue, and then redistributed from there by smaller vessels that can access the
available beach landings. With the high cost of energy in Alaska’s rural communities, it
is likely that residents of the smaller communities will migrate to the larger hub
communities of Nome and Kotzebue or to the larger cities of Fairbanks and Anchorage,
where the cost of living is cheaper. Thus, it is not anticipated that local shipping needs
will increase significantly in the near future.
Northland Services conducts about 5 barge sailings (380’ barge) to the Norton Sound
region. Most goods are then lightered using landing crafts to the smaller communities.
Northland does not deliver fuel, but instead, most of its freight supports state and
federally funded projects such as school construction, federal housing, tanks for tank
farms, etc. They go as far as Kotzebue to deliver, and thus have 1-2 transits per year
through the Bering Strait.
Tourism is a small, but significant contributor to Nome’s economy. Most tourists arrive
by plane rather than vessels, with many drawn by the Native culture, the mining history,
and the world renowned bird viewing in the region. The City of Nome levies a 4% bed
tax that generated $65,255 for the general fund for 2000 according to the Alaska
33. AMSA Bering Sea Region Case Study
Department of Community and Economic Development. Known for its gold rush history
and service as a transportation hub, Nome lures many visitors to the area and is an
established rural destination. Approximately 11,000 people traveled from outside the
region to Nome in 2001. Many of these individuals are packaged tourists who travel with
major airlines, but the growing trend is towards independent travelers.
New amenities at the Nome Port will have the potential to attract more cruise ship stops
to the area. The Nome Chamber of Commerce is currently marketing Nome to other tour
operators to develop additional cruise ship package tours that would begin and end in
Nome, including several stops in regional villages. The number of cruise ships of the 100
passenger size visiting the Bering Strait region is increasing slowly. Typically the same
ships frequent the region, only changing the quantity of stops for Nome. Since the World
Discoverer went bankrupt (twice at Nome) the Spirit of Oceanus and Clipper Odyssey
alternate having 1 and 2 calls. The Bremen and Hanseatic cruise ships have been landing
at the Nome harbor during alternate years; while this pattern of alternation might be
convenient for the port, it means that another cruise ship probably is not within rescue
distance in the Arctic Ocean, and therefore does not strengthen cruise ship safety in
Arctic waters.
An estimated 5,000 out-of-state visitors over-nighted in the Bering Strait region between
May and September, 2005. Cruise line agencies report that 786 cruise passengers stopped
in Nome in the summer of 2005, some of whom boarded their vessel in Nome and may
have spent the night there. Only a very small amount of independent travelers overnight
in Nome. The bulk of the passengers fly in on a charter flight, do a quick bus tour
through Nome and then board the cruise vessel for departure. Conversely, the inbound
ship passengers deboard, do a quick tour through Nome, then board the same charter
flight outbound. Locally, CruiseWest’s Spirit of Oceanus trip from Nome to Russia was
recently rated as one of the top ten cruises by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Small
cruise ships visiting the Bering Strait region include the Clipper Odyssey, Spirit of
Oceanus, and Hanseatic cruise ships
The City of Kotzebue has a package deal with Alaska Airlines that includes a structured
tour through town.
Summary of Visitor Statistics to the Region
1999 2000 2001
National Park Service Bering 3,000 3,025 Unavailable
Land Bridge National
Preserve Visitations
City of Nome Visitor Center 3,729 6,095 4,892
Group Travelers 1,320 1,520 2,285
Alaska Airlines Package 5,500 3,857 3,272
Total Visitors 10,549 11,472 10,449
34. AMSA Bering Sea Region Case Study
Scientific research support
The rapid loss of sea ice, changing marine ecosystems, and possible migration north of a
number of commercial fish species has sparked increased interest in research and
monitoring in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. This interest has resulted in increased
research vessel traffic which will probably continue into the foreseeable future. Table x
in Section V.A.1, shows that a Japanese research ship (Oshuru-Maru), Russian research
ship (Sever), and U.S./NOAA research ship (Oscar Dyson) transited the strait during
2007. According to the Nome harbormaster records, about 7 large research vessels transit
northward through the strait during June and July, and then south through the strait
during September (totaling about 15 transits). This list excludes the USCGC HEALY
which has conducted research in the Arctic since 2002 (spring-to-fall) as well as the
CGCS Sir Wilfrid Laurier that transits annually to the Canadian Arctic undertaking
international collaborative research along the way. The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong has
worked in the region every few years since 2003 and along with the new Korean
icebreaker (RV Araon), plans to undertake western Arctic cruises on a regular basis in the
future (see Pacific Arctic Group website for further cruise schedule details; http:// A new Alaska Research Vessel is in the planning stages to
be built by the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
with funds from the National Science Foundation; although the vessel did not affect
vessel traffic in the Bering Strait region during 2004, it will be large enough to serve the
region in the future.
V.B Commercial Vessels that Transit the Strait without Stopping at Local Ports
Industries to the north of the Bering Strait - namely the oil and gas industry and the Red
Dog mine - also depend on commercial vessels that transit the strait both northward and
southward bound. Overall, approximately 150 large commercial vessels pass through the
Bering Strait during the July-October open-water period, with transits of these vessels
most frequent at the beginning and end of the period. This estimate excludes fishing
vessels, which are generally smaller, as well as the number of fuel barges for coastal
mining activities and coastal communities.
Vessel traffic through the Bering Strait is of special concern because of indigenous
marine use (subsistence) near the strait, and also because the entire world population of
several marine mammals and birds also migrate through the strait during this short open-
water period (see Section IV on indigenous marine use and Section III on ecosystems and
bio-resource considerations). The probable ecosystem effects of spills were examined in
the Arctic Marine Assessment Program’s Oil and Gas Assessment’s concluding report,
entitled Arctic Oil and Gas 2007, and this case study does not re-examine the subject.
However, the 12 Key Findings in the concluding report include the following two:
#5 In the marine environments, oil spills are the largest threat.
#9 Responding to major oil spills remains a challenge in remote, icy
35. AMSA Bering Sea Region Case Study
The challenge of oil spills in broken ice near the Bering Strait and in other Arctic waters
could be met by further collaboration on research by Arctic states and industry.
Oil and Gas
Vessel traffic through the Bering Strait could be affected by oil and gas operations to the
north of the strait and in the waters near the strait. Detailed information about
exploratory operations in some of these areas is available through the Minerals
Management Service (MMS), which manages operations on the U.S. outer continental
shelf (OCS). Oil and gas operations to the north of the strait have occurred on the
Alaskan North Slope, in the Canadian and U.S. portions of the Beaufort Sea, and in the
U.S. portion of the Chukchi Sea. The specific locations of leases in the U.S. portion of
the Chukchi are illustrated in Figure 12. The locations of blocks-receiving-bids indicate
the locations of leases, and of some exploration drilling during the early 1990’s. Figure
13 of the Beaufort Sea illustrates the location of blocks receiving bids, and of existing
leases. Figures 12 and 13 can be downloaded from the following MMS web sites: and
36. AMSA Bering Sea Region Case Study
Figure 12 - Specific locations of leases in the U.S. portion of the Chukchi