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Alaska Science Forum: Shipping Brings More Noise, Trash to Bering

Scientists are finding waters of the Bering Strait (shared by the United States and Russia) are becoming much noisier due to more industrial ship traffic. Alaska residents of the region have noticed more garbage floating ashore recently.

As ice-cover decreases in the Bering Strait and the Arctic Ocean, more ships are steaming through, both northward and southbound, including Russian vessels whose captains are following the Northern Sea Route. There, ships hug the coast through Bering Strait and continue northward, curving westward around Russia to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

Kate Stafford and her colleagues have lowered hydrophones into the Bering Strait since 2009. They hear increasing manmade noises in what was an underwater version of a rainforest, rich with marine mammal songs.

“[The ships] are traveling right through bowhead whale winter core-use habitat, when bowheads are in Anadyr Strait and are singing,” says Stafford, an expert on underwater soundscapes who works at the University of Washington. “This is a potential disruption on their breeding and calving grounds.

“They have not been extensively exposed to [ships and their noises, including air guns fired for seismic testing] in the past—certainly not in the dead of winter as occurs now.”

In late July 2020, villagers all along the Bering Sea coast noticed a lot more trash on their beaches.

Nome-based Gay Sheffield of Alaska Sea Grant, part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, worked alongside those in coastal communities during the pandemic summer of 2020 to document and clean up an “unprecedented” amount of floating litter.

“There is trash and debris for miles along the shoreline,” an observer in the village of Savoonga reported in July 2020.

“Lots of Russian plastic [water] jugs,” someone from Unalakleet noted in August.

Sheffield and her partners from along Alaska’s west coast documented more 350 items that washed ashore, “most with Russian, Korean, and/or Asian lettering.”

They found water bottles, plastic tubes of men’s body wash, and forty-seven orange deck boots.

“There was no clothing or hygienic debris typically associated with women or children, which supports attributing this mass-debris event to commercial fisheries, which employ mostly male crew members,” Sheffield wrote in the Arctic Report Card.

“If there is no enforcement of existing international pollution laws, expect a trashy Arctic,” Sheffield says. “Think of the marine wildlife—that are also people’s food—dealing with toilet bowl cleaner bottles and garbage bags floating in the ocean.”

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