Statement by the Bering Sea Elders Group about new Bering Sea dangers

ICT editorial team

Bering Sea Elders approve of International Maritime Organization’s routing measures, including areas to be avoided

News Release

Bering Sea Elders

The Bering Sea Elders Group (BSEG) joins Kawerak, Inc. in acknowledging the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) recent recommendation to limit the navigable path of vessels in the Bering Sea in order to protect marine mammals and communities that rely on them for subsistence harvest. The IMO Action creates three Areas To Be Avoided (ATBA), including the waters around Nunivak Island, Saint Lawrence Island, and King Island. The routes will go into effect on December 1, 2018. BSEG believes that the IMO actions take important first steps but would like to see additional action to curb pollutants.

“The IMO’s decision does not address our serious concerns about discharge and the lack of oil spill preparedness in our regions. But the creation of the ATBAs has the potential to mitigate shipping impacts on marine wildlife and our communities,” said BSEG Executive Director Mellisa Heflin.

For thousands of years the coastal Yup’ik and Inupiaq peoples of the Bering Sea and Bering Strait have relied on marine mammals, seabirds, fish, shellfish, and other marine-based resources for food. Hunting and fishing bind our people to the sea, and tie families and communities together through the sharing of food and passing of knowledge and experience from one generation to the next.

Thousands of bowhead and beluga whales, hundreds of thousands of walruses, an estimated one million seals, and millions of seabirds migrate through the region. Large areas of the ocean are used by local hunters and fishermen to harvest food for villages along the coast.

Year-round, the northern Bering Sea is also a unique and sensitive acoustic environment. Marine mammals rely on their acoustic environment to find food, communicate, and navigate. They produce sounds critical for communication and mating purposes, and listen for predator cues within the ambient ocean soundscape.

Unbounded shipping paths endanger the Northern Bering Sea’s residents and marine mammals through noise disturbance, contaminated discharges, conflict with hunters and fishermen, and danger to small boats. The narrow 53-mile Bering Strait is the only passage between the Arctic and Pacific oceans. Currents, sea ice, and migrations of marine mammals and birds funnel through the Bering Strait, but it is a bottleneck to increasing ship traffic.


The Bering Sea Elders Group is an association of elders appointed by 39 Tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim and Bering Strait regions of Alaska. Each participating Tribe designates an Elder Representative to serve on the Elders Board. For more on the Bering Sea Elders Group, please visit: Contact: Mellisa Heflin, Executive Director (907) 891-1229,


Press Pool