AD Main Menu

Eskimo whalers in skin boats go high-tech to avoid massive freighters

Alex DeMarban
The village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. Ben Anderson photo

Eskimo whalers in skin boats are getting high-tech tools so they can track, and be tracked, by massive cargo freighters in the increasingly busy and often fog-shrouded Bering Strait.

But that's not the only advantage of the state-of-the-art transponder systems that arrived this week in a pair of villages alongside the chilly waters between Russia and the U.S.

The portable units -- two each for Gambell and Savoonga -- are part of a $35,000 pilot project organized by the Marine Exchange of Alaska, which works to improve vessel tracking in Alaska.

'First line of search and rescue'

Locals say the units will save lives during rescue missions because they'll allow village communication bases to watch whalers and any other traveler who checks them out for use. The marine exchange in Juneau will also track the transponders around the clock, as they do for other vessels off Alaska's coasts.  

"We are pretty excited because a lot of times out here we're the first line of search and rescue," said Perry Pungowiyi, referring to himself and other residents of Savoonga, population 713, the largest settlement on St. Lawrence Island, which sits south of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia.

The Yup'ik Eskimo community and its sister village of Gambell are located on the island, the sixth largest island in the U.S. and more than 700 miles from the nearest permanent U.S. Coast Guard base on Kodiak Island. They cannot easily get help finding boats trapped in pack ice or a snowmachiner who plunged into open water.  

"Time is of the essence, especially in the fall or winter," said Pungowiyi, vice president of the Native village corporation. "If something goes wrong, we need to know where someone is right away. Even if they don't tell us where they are, we can now see where they are."

The systems send and receive signals over satellite and radio as part of the Automatic Identification System, considered the most significant improvement in marine safety in decades. It's better than marine radar because it makes small boats very visible on electronic displays.

Ship traffic doubles

"A skiff will show up every bit as strong as a super tanker," said Ed Page, executive director of the marine exchange.

Increasing ship traffic through the Bering Strait motivated the marine exchange to round up the money for the project. If it works well, the exchange plans to put transponders in other villages.

The number of recorded ships traveling through the strait during the ice-free summer has nearly doubled in four years, growing from 130 recorded vessels in 2009 to 250 in 2012, according to Coast Guard figures.

The increase comes as nations hungry for new resources eye the untapped region, eager to capitalize on melting sea ice and bustling Asian economies.

But with the extra traffic comes increased risks of collisions. Some of the biggest freighters using the strait extend 700 feet. They might not spot tiny aluminum skiffs or skin boats when the weather is bad.

"I imagine it can be a little unsettling when you're in an 18-foot skin boat and 700-foot vessels are in the area, especially if you're in fog or reduced visibility," said Page.

Close encounters?

After attending meetings where villagers worried about the changes, Page rounded up funding for the system from the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Oak Foundation.

Marine exchange workers flew to the village this week to install radio antennas for communication bases and to show locals how to use the devices. The units, tucked into waterproof cases, can be turned off when there's no danger.

Whalers like that feature because it will help keep their hunts private and away from the cameras of conservation groups critical of bowhead whaling.

Pungowiyi said he hasn't heard of any close encounters between small boats in Savoonga and international freighters, but with more ships crossing the strait, the likelihood increases, he said.

Whalers, who landed four bowheads this spring, could be endangered. And Pungowiyi said he recently went halibut fishing 10 miles north of the island, where big ships can travel.   

"These could really save lives," he said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com