U.S. and Canada update agreement to protect rapidly changing Beaufort Sea

As sea ice retreats, the region is set to see more marine traffic — which comes with more pollution risks.

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A true-color composite image shows sea ice in the eastern Beaufort Sea on September 9, 2019. (Land Atmosphere Near-Real Time Capability for EOS (LANCE) System, NASA/GSFC)

Alaska and Canada share a portion of the Arctic Ocean known as the Beaufort Sea. With sea ice retreating, there is more opportunity for oil tankers, cargo ships, cruise ships and other vessels to pollute the area. The U.S. Coast Guard and its Canadian counterpart have long worked together to prevent such pollution or respond to it if it happens.

Now the U.S. and Canadian coast guards have signed an update to a pollution prevention and response agreement that reflects the rapid changes in the Beaufort Sea environment.

The updated Beaufort Sea Annex of the Canadian-U.S. Joint Marine Pollution Contingency Plan was signed earlier this month by Rear Admiral Nathan Moore, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Alaska commander and Neil O’Rourke, the assistant commissioner of the Canadian Coast Guard’s Arctic region.

Moore, O’Rourke and members of their staffs met in Yellowknife and Hay River, Northwest Territories, on June 7 and 8 to sign the updated agreement and conduct some joint exercises.

The newly signed Beaufort Sea agreement updates a document last signed in 2007. Since then, there has been an increase in ship traffic, planned ship traffic and other activities, said Mark Everett, the U.S. Coast Guard’s joint response team co-chairman under the annex.

“All of these potential uses have the need for coast guard services from both countries,” Everett said.

The two countries have a broader agreement, the CAN-US Joint Marine Pollution Contingency Plan, that guides prevention and response in transboundary marine waters. It was originally signed in 1983. The Beaufort agreement, known as an annex, is one of five for specific regions. A separate Alaska-related annex, for the Dixon Entrance waters off Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, was updated and signed in 2020.

Each annex is intended to keep transboundary communications and responses efficient. “We know who exactly to call if we need to,” Everett said.

The new Beaufort Sea annex makes necessary administrative adjustments to ensure that information about emergency contacts is accurate, Everett said. For example, it reflects the Canadian Coast Guard’s establishment of a separate Arctic region of operation, which was spun off in 2018 from what had previously been part of the bigger administrative region handling central and northern Canada operations, he said.

The most important update, he said, is the inclusion of a new Arctic threat assessment that describes the region’s environmental vulnerabilities in a time of rapid change.

On the Canadian side of the Beaufort, the Canadian Coast Guard has been building up its environmental program to respond to pollution threats there, officials said.

That is what residents of Canadian Arctic communities have said they want, O’Rourke said in a presentation in March to the Royal Institute of Navigation.

“We heard a lot from northerners about how they are scared of what happens to their traditional way of life if there is a major oil spill in the water,” O’Rourke said in the presentation.

The most high-profile new vessel traffic in the Beaufort Sea comes from luxury cruise ships crossing through the once-penetrable Northwest Passage, the general term for the waters off northern Canada that link the North Atlantic Ocean to the Bering Strait region. Since the Crystal Cruises ship Crystal Serenity made its first Northwest Passage voyage in 2016, other companies have started similar high-end voyages.

Northwest Passage cruise and pleasure-craft traffic was put on hold for two years by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is set to resume.

At least four cruise ships are scheduled to travel the entire passage this year from the Atlantic side to Nome, according to the latest port schedule posted by the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska.

Aside from addressing ship traffic in the Beaufort, Everett said, the new annex also addresses the potential of pollution events originating in Canada’s Mackenzie River.

The Mackenzie, North America’s largest south-to-north running river, is the source of about a tenth of the fresh water running into the Arctic Ocean and the site of a lot of ship and barge traffic. “The Mackenzie River is a very busy and complex waterway,” Everett said.

Because of a major clockwise-moving current called the Beaufort Gyre, the Mackenzie’s flow into the Arctic Ocean tends to run westward into the Alaska Beaufort, he said.

This story was first published by Alaska Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. You can read the original here.