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WWF proposes to limit shipping in Arctic for whales’ safety

According to the fund, WWF Russia is also conducting research on underwater noise off the coast of Chukotka to understand how it affects whales

MOSCOW, February 17. /TASS/. Shipping in the Bering Strait, Chukchi Sea, and in other narrow areas of the Northern Sea Route should be limited for the safety of whales, the press service of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Russia told TASS on Thursday, referring to a scientific report, which cites the routes of whales.

"In 2018, in order to streamline ship routes and reduce the risks of emergencies in the strait, the international maritime organization, at the suggestion of Russia and the United States, adopted a special scheme of ship traffic in the strait, and now it is successfully working. To keep the migration routes of whales and other marine mammals as free as possible, it is necessary that these rules be observed by all vessels because the traffic through the Strait will only grow. In addition, the creation of a special area, which ships should avoid, around the Big Diomede Island (also called the Ratmanov Island), located in the center of the strait is being discussed," the report says.

The neighboring Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea are also important for the conservation of whales. Currently, with the participation of WWF Russia, the possibility of giving the strait and some areas of these seas status of particularly sensitive sea area is being discussed. This will allow creating at the international level a flexible regime of regulation of shipping in these waters in order to preserve the marine environment. In addition, WWF Russia is conducting research on underwater noise off the coast of Chukotka to understand how it affects whales.

"In addition to the Bering Strait, there are several other areas in the Russian Arctic where a "bottle-neck" effect also forms for both ships and marine mammal migration routes. These are, in particular, the Kara Gate and the Vilkitsky Strait. It is also necessary to create rules for the movement of vessels in these areas, which would reduce the possibility of collisions and other threats to animals," the Fund added.

For the first time the routes of 845 whales, received as a result of satellite monitoring, were marked on a single map within the frames of the report. Results of research of more than 50 teams of scientists from all over the world during the last 30 years were analyzed. The findings showed that the threats to the whales are getting more serious every year. Industrial pollution, ship strikes, underwater noise, unsustainable fishing, and climate change are affecting whales, their habitats, and food sources. Bycatch in fishing nets alone kills up to 300,000 cetaceans a year.

The authors of the report note that three routes cross in the Bering Strait that will be actively developed in the next 20 years: the Northern Sea Route, the Northwest Passage, and the Trans-Polar Sea Route. This is the only narrow (just over 80 km wide) and shallow (with the shallowest fairway depth of 35 m) strait connecting the Pacific and the Arctic Oceans. Every year up to hundreds of thousands of marine mammals gather here, moving from north to south and back. These include gray, bowhead, and humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, killer whales, beluga whales, walruses, and other pinnipeds. Because of the shrinking ice cover in the Arctic in summer, navigation in the area has doubled over the past decade, from 262 ship passes in 2009 to 494 in 2019.