If I told you that I’m standing in the kitchen, doing the dishes while staring outside the window at what the world has to offer, you wouldn’t think there’s anything special about the moment, right? But if I told you that the kitchen is not a kitchen, but a galley; that the window is not a window, but a porthole; that what the world outside has to offer is the mighty Bering Sea hugging the shorelines of the magnificent Aleutian Islands, and that in between them and me there seems to be an endless train of humpback, grey and killer whales going by… well, then you’d think again, wouldn’t you?
I look down into the sink. In my hands, I find a typical array of knives, forks and spoons mixed with a not-so-typical array of very fine-looking Japanese chopsticks. On board, the medley of top-notch crew and some of the best American and Japanese film producers and whale experts to be found also makes for some pretty fine company. Their job is to document interactions between orcas and grey whales as the latter migrate from Mexico to this part of the world. Other than to help with the more mundane tasks at hand, my job is simply to enjoy the moment, so darn it! Why can’t I do just that?
The thing is, I’ve been here once before, just over five years ago. I was with Fish and Wildlife officials, studying the impact that the presence of hydrocarbons in the marine environment was having on the elusive Steller eider (a type of sea duck) a few months after the Selendang-Ayu disaster. The gigantic vessel was hit by an Aleutian-style storm — it broke in two, releasing more than 75 per cent (337,000 gallons) of its total fuel load onto Unalaska Island’s west coast.
A freak event? Not quite, sir. Remember, this is the Bering Sea, 885,000 square miles of the coldest, stormiest, bleakest ocean in the world. And that being the case, you could be forgiven for wondering what the Selendang-Ayu was doing here in the first place. It turns out that the Bering Sea is part of an intercontinental transportation corridor; hundreds of container ships come through the area every year, making the Great Circle between Asia and the west coast of North America. This route is shorter than crossing the Pacific, and large vessel traffic is expected to double in the next 25 years due to anticipated growth in trade. Some are already bracing themselves; it’s now known that there may be as much as two billion barrels of oil beneath the waves, making the potential for future spills even worse. The situation classes as dire when we consider the remoteness of the area and the limited infrastructure. And you may be asking yourself: Why should we care?
Well, it also turns out that the Bering Sea is one of the most extraordinarily productive marine ecosystems in the world, and many species of wildlife live here and nowhere else. It serves as an indicator of the entire planet’s health, a lab where scientists study changes in ice and climate, as well as sediment and nutrient transport patterns. The livelihoods of many thousands of people depend on the astounding productivity of the Bering Sea region, and the fisheries’ contribution to the U.S. economy is in the scale of billions.
Thus the North Pacific Great Circle Route which intersects the Aleutian Islands passes near critical environmental and economically vital habitat. The Selendang-Ayu disaster was not a freak event, and the State of Alaska has been keen, if not quick, to learn the lesson since then. A panel of experts and stakeholders is currently working on recommendations to improve safety in the area’s marine transportation. Panel members are analyzing the potential consequences of spills, and the risk reduction options they offer include enhanced vessel monitoring programs and tracking systems, increased rescue tug service, emergency towing and spill response capabilities, as well as higher liability limits and civil penalties.
It all sounds like common sense, eh? But at the end of the day, the panel’s effort will go to waste if American decision-makers, just like their neighbours, us Canadians, turn a blind eye to wisely given advice. “There is no silver lining once the oil hits the water” — so reads the basic wisdom offered by Ed Page, advisory panel member and general mariner.