OIL & GAS
Alaska Native whaling communities have been stewards of the ocean and habitat of the bowhead whale for millennia and this stewardship remains a priority today. AEWC, originally formed to manage the bowhead whale subsistence harvest and meet obligations to the IWC, was forced in the early 1980s to expand its focus to address competition for use of the waterway by offshore oil and gas operators created by the Department of the Interior lease sales on the Beaufort Sea Outer continental shelf (OCS). This effort led to the development of the Open Water Season Conflict Avoidance Agreement (CAA).
Through the CAA, the AEWC works with offshore oil and gas operators to develop and implement measures to eliminate the threat of adverse effects to bowhead whales, bowhead whale habitat, and subsistence uses from offshore oil and gas exploration activities.
The imperative behind this work was/is two-fold. First, competing activities on the water during the open-water season have the potential to drive whales away from hunters. This direct threat increases the risk to human life during the hunt and threatens food security by reducing the efficiency of the harvest. Examples of adverse impacts experienced because of the offshore activity include significant deflections of fall migrating whales, forcing hunters to travel extreme and unsafe distances in search of whales; behavioral changes in migrating whales that cause them to be more difficult to locate and take; and excluding whales, including cow-calf pairs, from important feeding and resting areas as a result of increased industrial activities in those areas during migratory periods.
Second, offshore development activities have the potential to degrade whale habitats through noise and other sources of pollution. This indirect threat puts the subsistence quota set by the IWC at risk. If the IWC perceives a risk to the whale stock from any source, its only avenue of response is the reduction of the AEWC’s harvest quota.
As with its work to manage the bowhead whale subsistence hunt, the AEWC relies on sound, peer-reviewed science, informed by Traditional Knowledge, to identify impacts and to provide the basis for mitigation.
The mitigation measures incorporated into the CAA are developed through a collaborative annual process that brings industry representatives together with the Whaling Captains to develop measures that meet the needs of both the hunters and operators while protecting the whales and their habitat. The CAA allows whaling captains to take an active role in the management of their natural resources. It has been so successful in meeting these objectives that federal agencies have begun to look to the CAA to enable them to meet statutory safeguards required for permitting offshore activities.
The AEWC’s work through the CAA also provides essential input to NOAA in the issuance of small-take authorizations for offshore oil and gas activities. The MMPA requires that, before issuing a small take authorization, NOAA/NMFS find that the activities to be authorized will not have an “unmitigable adverse impact” on the availability of marine mammals for subsistence. Additionally, the success of the CAA collaborative process has brought about a significant expansion and consolidation of institutional capacity in northern Alaska, focused on marine safety, food security, and environmentally sound management of the marine environment. Consultation through this collaborative process gives marine and maritime stakeholders efficient and effective access to the coastal communities from St. Lawrence Island to the Canadian border.
VESSEL TRAFFIC & ARCTIC RESEARCH
The Arctic is warming at more than three times the rate of the rest of the planet. As sea ice melts, ship traffic is increasing, particularly in the Bering Strait, where all trans-Arctic shipping routes (Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage, and Transpolar Sea Route) converge. Between 2008 and 2018, vessel traffic through the Bering Strait alone increased by almost 150%. This trend is expected to continue with more tankers, cruise ships, cargo ships, and research vessels using the strait. Vessel traffic in U.S. Arctic waters could increase by one-third by 2030.
The first challenge arises from the research community utilizing the AEWC as a blanket source for consultation with regions and other Alaska Native Organizations. Although the AEWC has created a platform through the CAA process for coastal community engagement, it lacks adequate funding for this purpose and cannot (and should not) adequately bear the burden of outreach to individual regions and villages, which is the responsibility of the researchers.
Another challenge is that researchers and their respective agencies could consume two days of AEWC’s triannual meetings. This leaves only one day for the AEWC to conduct business to meet its co-management obligations. While consultation is a requirement of research funding, no funding is provided to the AEWC for this effort and once again, the burden of this responsibility falls on the subsistence hunters as the workload increases.
The increased demand on the AEWC to mitigate Arctic waterways has been so significant that the AEWC Board of Commissioners passed two resolutions during the 2022 Annual Whaling Captain’s Convention addressing mitigation of Arctic research and vessel traffic. Resolution 2022-03 creates an AEWC Scientific and Research Audit Committee to establish a mechanism like the CAA, establishing the protocol for the research community in their consultation and ensuring funding agencies are communicating amongst themselves to keep duplicative projects to a minimum. Resolution 2022-04 commits the AEWC to work with other subsistence organizations to mitigate the impacts of research on subsistence activities. Resolutions 2022-03 and 2022-04 are attached in the appendices.
As the whaling communities have adapted to socio-political, and now climate, change the AEWC has continued to adapt its services to meet the needs of its whaling captains and communities and various competing waterway users. In doing so, the AEWC has become a platform providing many services beyond cooperative management of the bowhead whale subsistence harvest.
The number of vessels operating in waters north of the Bering Strait around the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas has increased by 128% and is now 2.3 times larger than the number of ships passing through the region in 2008. These vessels have been engaged in a variety of activities, including natural resource exploration and extraction, commercial shipping, oceanographic research, and tourism in waters that previously were used only by ships resupplying remote communities along the sparsely populated coastlines of western and northern Alaska.
Over the next decade, it is anticipated that natural resource activities in the Arctic, particularly the growth of liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments from Russia and vessels needed to resupply mining operations in northern Canada, will play a large role in the volume of traffic transiting through the Bering Strait. Ice-strengthened ships and vessels engaged in trans-Arctic shipments are expected to steadily increase the volume of vessel traffic in the region over the next decade and infrastructure development, repair, modification, and relocation activities will also contribute to vessel activity in the region.
More vessel traffic in the Arctic poses a host of threats including ship strikes on marine mammals, underwater noise that disturbs wildlife, air and water pollution, oil spills, and potential conflicts with subsistence hunters in small boats.
As a result of the rapid changes occurring in the Arctic, the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) has published an Arctic Research Plan 2022-2026 to address the most pressing Arctic research needs to advance understanding of the Arctic and climate change, inform policy and planning decisions, and promote the well-being of Arctic communities. The plan acknowledges the need for increased Arctic research and prioritizes working collaboratively with Indigenous organizations to mitigate impacts.
The AEWC is in a unique and difficult position in relation to the increase in marine traffic – from all vessels and from the research community. In good faith, the federal government and thus many funding agencies are now requiring Alaska Native consultation or co-production in funding proposals. This requires researchers to consult with Alaska Native organizations, regions, or Tribes. The AEWC’s success in developing the CAA as a mechanism for mitigation and a platform for consultation has been recognized by the research community and has caused an exponential increase in engagement of 360% between 2014 to 2021. This presents significant challenges to the AEWC.