The northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait region has been an ecological, cultural, and economic center for Yup’ik, Cup’ik, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and Inupiaq peoples for centuries. Yet, recently, a combination of factors, including less sea ice and more trade and resource development, has resulted to an increased vessel traffic in the region led by huge cargo vessels, tugs, and research vessels, and is expected to continue growing.
Most of these vessels provide information on people, science and commerce in this area, but they also embody some major and on-the-rise challenges including the production of large quantities of waste. Sea vessels are able to create more than 40 different kinds of waste in the ocean. However, already existent regulations are complex and vary depending on a vessel’s type, size, place of origin, destination, and distance from shore. In order to lower the pollution, key regulations should be strengthened and combined with better monitoring and enforcement, argued Eleanor Huffines, Senior Officer at Pew Charitable Trusts, US Arctic.
According to Pew, between 2008 and 2015, the region experienced a 145 % increase in vessel traffic, led by large cargo vessels, research vessels, tugs, and even visits from large cruise ships, although fishing vessels continue to account for the largest share of traffic in the southernmost waters of the region. Also, lower rates of sea ice also means the region is increasingly easy-to-navigate by more types of ships and for longer periods.
Risen vessel traffic also causes sea pollution. On most vessels, trash is initially sorted by type, with food separated from nonfood waste. The latter is then further sorted, depending on the requirements of the port where the vessel is likely to offload its garbage. Other types of waste are sewage, grey water and oil.
- Sewage, known as blackwater, is generated mostly by people; the more crew and passengers on a vessel, the more sewage is produced. MARPOL defines sewage as drainage and other wastes from any form of toilet. Risks from sewage include harm to human health from the bacterium fecal coliform and to the marine environment from oxygen depletion and nutrient overenrichment. FC is from human and animal feces and, when found in water, may indicate the presence of other disease-causing bacteria or viruses.
- Grey water is drainage from showers, sinks, dishwashers, and laundry facilities. It is generated by the people and services on a vessel. Luxury vessels such as cruise ships generate large quantities in comparison to other types of vessels because they are primarily passenger-serving. The impacts of Grey water are similar to sewage pollution. According to studies, grey water contains comparable concentrations of FC and oxygen-depleting nutrients and chemicals.
- Oil is produced by vessels that are generated by machine and use a variety of lubricating and hydraulic oils that must be changed periodically as part of routine maintenance. Vessels may store waste oil onboard for disposal at a port or burn it in an onboard incinerator. In most areas, the oily water may be discharged. The type of oil as marine diesel, heavy fuel oil and water conditions, such as cold, warm, etc. will affect how the oil behaves and its impacts.
- Light oils, such as gasoline and diesel fuel, evaporate more quickly than heavy oils, such as bunker fuel, which can persist in the environment for months or years.
- Heavy oils can smother or coat wildlife, causing acute hypothermia in birds and some marine mammals, and other long-term health impacts for marine species.
According to Ms. Huffines, to mitigate the potential harms, and reduce the amount of pollution, regulators at the international, US federal, and Alaska state levels, in partnership with Indigenous communities and other stakeholders, should consider the following:
- Monitor onboard trash and enforce rules limiting marine garbage, particularly plastics;
- Require that all vessels treat sewage to a high, consistent standard before discharging;
- Ban releases of untreated sewage into the marine environment;
- Mandate more frequent monitoring, testing, and discharge reporting;
- Regulate grey water as a pollutant, similar to sewage, that must be treated on board before discharge;
- Prohibit oil and oily water discharges from ships south of the Polar Code boundary.