US, Russia Drafting Voluntary Bering Strait Passage Regulations

Vessel traffic is increasing through the Bering Strait, and no regulations exist to monitor that movement. The United States Coast Guard wants to change that.

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No country owns the Bering Strait waters, and no international law manages vehicle movement through the passage. As ice melts and traffic increases, this absence of regulation creates hazardous conditions for vessels.

United States Coast Guard Admiral Thomas Ostebo says the growing risk is his primary concern for the Arctic.

“There is no traffic light. There’s no traffic lane. There’s no northbound on this side, southbound over on this side reporting in requirements at all for going through the Bering Strait,” Ostebo said.

With no standard routing or reporting requirements, the risk for accidents increases.

Last year, Ostebo says, the Bering Strait saw the largest number of ship and cargo traffic in the strait’s history and the Coast Guard expects an even higher rate this year. In fact, international traffic is projected to reach such heights that Ostebo compares the Bering Strait to the Panama Canal in future global use and status.

“A major international strait that’s emerging—I would submit the biggest one since the Panama Canal,” Ostebo said. “It’s happening right in front of us.”

To implement preventative measures, the Coast Guard and its Russian counterpart are drafting voluntary regulations for passage through the Bering Strait. Ostebo says the voluntary agreement would become standard practice through insurers incorporating the measures as terms and conditions in their policies.

“Clearly, if you’re in the shipping business and you’re not following best practice standard, although it’s voluntary, and if you have a problem, culpability follows shortly behind that from a legal perspective,” Ostebo said.

The voluntary system would serve as a placeholder until the International Martine Organization passed laws to govern the strait, a process expected to take many years.

Ostebo says the United States is sponsoring the law and is seeking support from Russia to help the move the ruling forward.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.