Getting everyone engaged in an oil spill response plan
There is a lot of attention on the Arctic this week. Climate change is dominating the headlines, and with good reason. Here in Alaska (and especially in the Arctic) things are changing and warming far more rapidly than the rest of the world. In fact, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth, which is leading to all kinds of problems for people and wildlife alike. Habitats are changing, oceans are acidifying, food webs are getting thrown out of whack, and as sea ice continues to decline, more ships are venturing further into the Arctic Ocean.
It is that last threat that can often be overlooked. Melting sea ice is opening up more of the Arctic, and while many are focused on the possibility of companies beginning to drill for oil in the Arctic and oil spills as a result of drilling, they often forget the threat of an oil spill from increased ship traffic. Thousands of ships each year pass through the region, each carrying with them the potential for environmental disaster. The routes that ships take bring them frighteningly close to the same paths that whales, fish, and all kinds of marine wildlife migrate through each year. In the case of a spill, everything that lives in or relies on the ocean would be impacted – whales, fish, walruses, seabirds, polar bears, people and more. As more sea ice gives way to open ocean, even more ships will traverse the region each year. Ship traffic through the Bering Strait increased by a whopping 118% between 2008 and 2012, and keeps rising.
While we continue to work hard in the courts and on Capitol Hill to prevent oil exploration in the Arctic, and to urge agencies to take steps to prevent accidents or spills, it seems that an oil spill impacting Arctic marine wildlife is all but inevitable. If it were ever to happen, we want to make sure the response is timely and efficient to give the region’s wildlife the best possible chance to survive and recover.
Giving Marine Wildlife Better Odds in the Event of a Spill
Especially in recent years, spill response agencies and organizations around the Arctic have improved their oil spill response plans. While these improvements are beneficial to prepare for the possibility of an oil spill, not every plan incorporates enough local community engagement to reduce impacts on marine wildlife. As the threat of spills increase, it will be ever more important to have sufficient local response by communities as first responders and wildlife observers. We have worked to ensure that improved spill response is highlighted in the U.S. draft polar bear recovery plan, and that individual response plans for different marine mammal species are current and truly effective. In May, we co-hosted a workshop on Pacific walrus with marine mammal spill response experts to help inform the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as they revise the response plan for that species.
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Having the Tools to Act
Plans are only effective if you have the tools to act on them. Traditional oil-spill response tools are not designed for massive marine mammals like polar bears. So we’re working to develop brand new ones. Weighing in at hundreds, sometimes more than a thousand pounds, cleaning an oiled polar bear would be no easy feat. We worked with the Alaska Zoo to build polar bear washing tables – equipment that allows trained responders to elevate and thoroughly clean polar bears of any oil, and contain the contaminated water so it does not get back into the habitat. We have also partnered with the Marine Mammal Management staff in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to design and build polar bear-sized spill response holding modules. These modules (the first of their kind) can be configured in various ways to safely hold different numbers of polar or other marine mammals during a spill clean-up. They also allow trained personnel to safely house cleaned or unoiled animals while their family group members are being cleaned and treated close-by, which makes the whole process far less stressful for the bears.
Partnering with Local Communities
We are working with local communities on the ground in areas that could be at greatest risk for an oil spill one day. Strengthening community engagement makes sense given the remote nature of some of these communities – in the case of a spill, it could take a full two to three days for response agencies to mobilize and set up at these locations. The locals, on the other hand, are right there on the ground, and their extensive and expert knowledge of the local wildlife and their habitat and environment make their role in preparing for an oil spill absolutely critical. We are helping officials in these communities create and strengthen response committees and plans that will include wildlife experts among the observers and increase the number of trained first responders in the event of a spill. Our long-term goal is that all Alaska coastal communities will be integral partners in spill planning, preparedness and response.
I hope that as the world turns its eyes to the Arctic, it begins to truly realize the serious and wide-reaching impacts that climate change is already having here. And that the threat of an oil spill in the Arctic, while growing closer each year, is something we can address, if we act now.
Help us continue the vital work of ensuring the Arctic can respond quickly and efficiently to an oil spill, giving polar bears, walruses and other wildlife the best chance for survival.