The United Nations agency responsible for marine safety standards last week approved a set of two-way shipping routes through the Bering Strait.
The routes were proposed to the International Maritime Organization in a joint effort by the United States and the Russian Federation.
"Over the past decade, the U.S. and Russia have both observed a steady increase in Arctic shipping activity," wrote U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Standards Division Chief Mike Sollosi earlier this year, when the routes were being proposed.
The Coast Guard has been working on a series of waterway safety studies, culminating with this year's Port Access Route Study, that predated the proposal and evaluated a number of sensitive areas and safety concerns in the region.
The routes cover both northbound and southbound traffic from the Bering Sea to the choke point of the Bering Strait for vessels traveling near Alaska and the Chukotskiy Peninsula.
The proposal outlined a number of priorities for consideration in establishing the routes, including to reduce collision risks between vessels, avoid ice during certain seasons, steer clear of shoals, reefs and islands, reduce the risk of pollution, streamline ship traffic and maintain a safe and respectful distance from subsistence areas frequented by local community members.
"The recent developments of economic activity in the Arctic will lead to an increased impact on the natural environment of the Arctic region," project developers wrote in the proposal.
"Therefore, the establishment of new recommendatory two-way routes aims to reduce the potential negative impact on the environment of the Arctic and the risks of environmental accidents and disasters in consequence of marine casualties."
Both countries recognized through the proposal that while there is already some traffic through the Bering Strait, interest in the region is steadily growing.
Sea ice coverage throughout the year is diminishing, meaning the narrow waterway is becoming more feasibly passable for not only cargo and industry vessels, but also cruise ships and other passenger boats.
Supporters of the proposal have argued this increased traffic could pose a risk to local marine life and subsistence activities if it's not better regulated in the future.
"The IMO's action will help mitigate the risks that international shipping poses to the Arctic," noted the environmental group Oceana's Senior Scientist and Campaign Manager Jon Warrenchuk in a release last week. "This is a huge step forward in improving maritime safety and reducing the potential for negative interactions between industrial vessels transiting the Bering Strait, the Arctic ecosystem and communities that rely on the area's diverse marine life."
The move has been lauded by tribal governments and environmental groups alike and has been supported by research efforts on the part of both leading countries.
Russia and the United States are the countries that border the area in question, however, the routes are meant as guidelines for any ships traversing the area, regardless of where they're from.
The proposal was developed jointly by the United States and the Russian Federation since the routes in the Bering Strait are located in United States and Russian territorial waters only, project developers wrote.
"Nevertheless, given that the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait are used by a wide variety of nationalities of ships, the United States and the Russian Federation consider it important for the recommendatory routing measures to gain worldwide recognition through adoption by the International Maritime Organization."
That's how the proposed routes ended up before an arm of the United Nations.
The shipping routes themselves follow logical passageways on either side of the Diomede Islands, which are jointly shared by both countries. There are six areas of precaution, which vessels are supposed to take special care near, and three areas to be avoided entirely.
Those no-go zones surround Nunivak Island, King Island and St. Lawrence Island and are particularly sensitive for marine life and subsistence use.
The proposed routes are not mandatory; vessels will have to voluntarily follow them. They are intended for large vessels of 400 gross tons or greater, and are not meant for smaller personal craft. For that reason, the routes are also located quite far off the coast, to put ships in the deeper, safer waters nearest to the middle of the Strait.
The full proposal that was adopted by the maritime organization can be found at on.adn.com/2LTLDdK.
This story was originally published in The Arctic Sounder. It is republished here with permission.