A disastrous 2004 shipping accident in the Aleutian Islands — the grounding of the M/V Selendang Ayu, which spilled 336,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil into the waters of a National Wildlife Refuge — underscored the perils inherent in marine transportation through the region. After the tragedy, which took the lives of six crew members, NFWF’s Impact-Directed Environmental Accounts (IDEA) program joined the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of Alaska to implement a plan aimed at preventing similar accidents.
This part of the frigid Bering Sea, where storms and severe conditions prevail, is part of the Great Circle Route, traveled by thousands of cargo ships and tankers each year. The route passes through the vast and productive Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts the largest nesting population of seabirds in North America and provides an important stopover site for migratory seabirds from several continents. It also intersects with some of the world’s most productive commercial fishing grounds.
When the effects of the M/V Selendang Ayu incident killed thousands of migratory birds and oiled 20 miles of coastline, the need for a comprehensive examination of the risks of vessel accidents in the area gained new importance. A federal court settlement required the company responsible to pay $3 million to NFWF’s IDEA program, to be used to address risks related to shipping traffic in the sensitive environment.
Since 2009, NFWF’s IDEA team, together with the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of Alaska, has overseen a comprehensive evaluation of the risk of vessel accidents and spills in the Aleutian Islands. The first phase of the Aleutian Islands Risk Assessment (AIRA) study was completed in September 2011 with the issuance of a Summary Report culminating two years of research, discussions and expert recommendations from an advisory panel of stakeholders. Some of the proposed risk reduction options include stationing additional emergency towing systems for vessels in distress and improving the existing Automated Identification System that tracks ships.
“The large problem is that there are limited resources and it’s a very remote area,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Michael R. Franklin, a member of the AIRA management team. “By focusing on the risks and working on the options we’ve identified, we can reduce risk greatly.” The second phase of the AIRA is now underway, with the ultimate goal of improving environmental safety of shipping operations in the region.