At the doorway to the Arctic: An Aleut perspective on a sustainable Arctic Ocean

03 November 2020
As the northern waterways open up to container vessel traffic, the Aleut people find themselves at the doorstep to Arctic shipping. Once the Northern Sea Route is traversable for more than six months a year, the shorter route to Europe will become profitable to shippers in Japan, Korea and China. This will bring a major shift to global shipping and to the Aleut Region.

The Aleutian Islands build an arc that connects westwards from the Alaska Peninsula toward the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, diving the Bering Sea in the North from the Pacific Ocean in the South. At the center of this arc lies Adak, a small town on Adak Island with a population of around 330 people. Adak could soon become one of several shipment hubs in the Arctic, which will connect vessels to the Great Circle Route – a route that 7000 vessels in near future could use to bring goods to Europe.

The town of Adak

“I was in Petropavlavsk, Russia, last year as they were loading the Sevmorput icebreaking container vessel with 650 containers of fish. The vessel was going from the Russian Far East to Europe in only eleven days. We are going to see an increase of shipments like this in the region and that is going to require shipment hubs in places like Adak and Petropavlosk-Kamchatskiy”, says sustainable Arctic shipping expert Paul Fuhs, who has lived and worked in the Aleutian region for many years.

The increased traffic in Arctic waters will require safe shipping practices and Paul Fuhs has been involved in setting up an extensive vessel tracking and monitoring system in Alaskan waters. “In the Aleutians, passing vessels have to sail at least 50 miles off shore. This gives us more time to respond in case of an incident at sea, to recue people and to prevent environmental pollution”, Paul Fuhs explains.

For the Unangan (Aleut people) and other Indigenous peoples across the Arctic coastline that are relying on subsistence hunting, safe and sustainable shipping is critical. “Healthy oceans and a clean environment equal healthy people and for us to continue our subsistence lifestyles that is something that we are very much cognizant of. The Aleut region is the doorway to get to the Arctic. In order to get to the Northern Sea Route and through to the Northwest Passage, you come through our region. Therefore, I think that safety at sea translates to our people still being able to hunt and fish and remain on the landscape”, says Dr. Liza Mack, Executive Director of the Aleut International Association.

Paul Fuhs and his team at Marine Exchange of Alaska have set up land-based antennas, which connect to every vessel that has an automated identification system (AIS) transmitter on board. “These signals come in to our operations center where we watch them 24 hours, seven days a week. If we see that a vessel slows down below 3 knots, we know that vessel is in trouble. So, we get an early notification and can identify the nearest vessel, which can assist”, explains Paul Fuhs.

As the ice in Arctic waters retreats and shipment increases, new safety measures are needed in the High North. One solution Paul Fuhs sees is the establishment of mandatory safe shipping lanes: “The United States and the Russian Federation worked with the International Maritime Organization on shipping lanes in the Bering Strait. But so far, these are voluntary.” He also sees an opportunity for the Arctic Council, in cooperation with the Arctic Economic Council, to evaluate best vessel tracking practices and to propose standardized classifications for ice going vessels.

Paul Fuhs and Dr Liza Mack both joined the Arctic Council’s webinar series on Arctic marine matters and talked about shipping and its impacts on Aleut communities. Their full intervention and those of their fellow panellists are available on the Arctic Council’s Vimeo channel.