Ships take environmentally friendly path

Ships passing through the Aleutian Islands are heeding advisories to stay further from shore for safety.

Aleutian Islands Areas To Be Avoided (ATBAs)
Aleutian Islands Areas To Be Avoided (ATBAs)

Ship captains take guidance – and that’s positive environmental and ship safety news for Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

Scientists from Michigan State University (MSU), Audubon Alaska, Kickstep Approaches, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Alaska Conservation Foundation did a first-time evaluation to find out if ships honored areas to be avoided (ATBAs) designated by the International Maritime Organization in 2016. The results are published in Frontiers in Marine Science.

These are waters in the busy Aleutian Islands through which thousands of cargo ships and tankers pass each year, transporting goods between North America and Asia. The ATBAs seek to keep these vessels farther offshore, away from the islands to provide a longer time buffer if ships have trouble. This long chain of islands is remote, and support vessels can be days away if ships become disabled. Creating a 50-nautical mile buffer can help avoid the loss of vessels, environmental catastrophes, such as spills or other pollution, not to mention loss of human life.

Until recently, it’s been hard to track exactly how successful ATBAs are, but the group used four years of satellite-based vessel tracking data to assess the effectiveness of the Aleutian ATBAs. And it turns out, most ships were indeed avoiding those areas.

The percentage of voyages transiting through the boundaries of what would become ATBAs decreased from 76.3% in 2014-2015 – before ATBA designation - to 11.8% in 2016-2017.

“While there are many of them around the world, only a handful of ATBAs have ever been studied to see if ships actually don't go where they're not supposed to,” said Kelly Kapsar, a PhD student in MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and co-author. “As far as we know, none of those studies have looked at the same ships before and after the areas to be avoided were put in place to see if individual ships were changing their behavior to follow the new guidance.”


“Accidents such as when the MV Selendang Ayu ran ashore in 2004 after its engines failed provided a clear impetus for these protections,” said Wildlife Conservation Society’s regional director and co-author Martin Robards.

Kapsar, who studies the social and environmental impacts of shipping in the North Pacific, sees these management efforts as an effective way to prevent accidents and preserve sensitive ecosystems. In turn, this can help promote sustainable management.

“Most of the stuff that we own comes to us from distant countries by ship,” Kapsar said. “However, until recently, research on the environmental impacts of international trade has often overlooked the impacts of shipping, in part due to the challenges of knowing exactly where ships travel offshore. Looking into the fine-scale movement of ships can help us to get a more accurate idea of where and when ships are traveling through particular regions. In turn, this can help us to design and test the effectiveness of different policies, like ATBAs, and promote more sustainable transport and a safer environment.”

Beyond the Aleutians, Kapsar and her colleagues’ work is immediately applicable to current planning efforts that will shape global commerce for decades to come. As sea ice decreases in the rapidly warming Arctic Ocean, more and more vessels are traveling through Arctic waters that lack detailed navigation plans.

To better safeguard Arctic-transiting vessels, the U.S. Coast Guard recently launched the Alaskan Arctic Coast Port Access Route Study. This multi-year effort will look at how to improve vessel safety in dynamic Arctic waters. ATBAs might well be considered in the final plan, especially now that the maritime community knows how well they work thanks to the paper.

In addition to Kapsar and Robards, “Spatial management measures alter vessel behavior in the Aleutian Archipelago” was written by Ben Sullender of Audubon Alaska and Kickstep Approaches and Aaron Poe of Alaska Conservation.

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