Today the Advisory Panel to the Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment released sweeping recommendations for addressing the history of environmental, social and economic damage from shipwrecks in this heavily trafficked region. The Advisory Panel recommended increased tug presence, comprehensive tracking, and protections at the local and international level.
“We cannot continue to depend upon the policy of luck when we consider the potential devastation of another shipping accident in the Aleutians,” said Whit Sheard, Pacific Counsel and Senior Advisor for Oceana who served as the conservation representative on the Advisory Panel. “These consensus recommendations chart a clear path to protecting one of the most ecologically important marine areas on the planet. They must be implemented swiftly.”
The Aleutian Islands archipelago is one of the most fragile and wondrous places on Earth, home to extraordinary deep-sea corals, 25 marine mammal species, seabirds from all seven continents, and hundreds of species of fish. Aleutian fisheries are a critical part of Alaska’s economy, and part of the region that provides for more than half of the catch of multibillion dollar U.S. fisheries. Thousands of ships travel through the region each year as part of the international Great Circle Route.
Aleutian Island communities and Bering Sea fishermen painfully recall that the freighter Selendang Ayu ran aground and split in two off the shore of Unalaska Island in December of 2004. Despite the heroic efforts of the Coast Guard and others, six crew members were lost, and the fisheries important to local Alaska communities were damaged. Over three-quarters of the ship’s fuel, more than 300,000 gallons, poured into the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the largest such spill in U.S. waters since the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.
As in Prince William Sound, we will not know the full ecological or economic impacts of this spill for many years. Recent near misses illustrate that risk has not been adequately addressed. In December, 2010, the 738 foot Golden Seas, which was carrying nearly half a million gallons of fuel, narrowly averted disaster when it was rescued by a tug that was visiting the region. No such tug is stationed in the Aleutians, a situation that the Advisory Panel recommends be addressed immediately.
“It is well past time for us to get adequate, robust and preventive measures in place for the Aleutian Islands, one of our last remaining storehouses of ecological treasures,” said Sheard. “Anything less is simply hitting the snooze button on a Selendang Ayu shipwreck, and we can no longer afford to take that kind of chance in the Aleutians.”