International Group Grants Formal Approval of Aleutian Shipping ‘Buffer Zones’

The International Maritime Organization’s Marine Safety Committee is in the middle of its 95th session in London this week.  Included on the committee’s agenda is the adoption of five recommended “areas to be avoided” in the Aleutian Chain. The shipping buffer zones come in anticipation of increased mariner shipping traffic in the region.

The new zones apply to ships 400 gross tons and heavier – the kind of ships that make trans-oceanic voyages through the Bering Sea and the North Pacific.

Leslie Pearson is a project manager for the Aleutian Islands risk Assessment and a management consultant. She said the zones are meant to dampen environmental damage in the event of an accident or spill.

“Well certainly the projection of future development in Alaska and long the west coast helped as far as being a driver for these, but also past accidents,” said Pearson. “I mean we learn from history perhaps it’s better to be offshore than close into shore.”

The zones come from recommendations made by the US Coast Guard. They are based on similar “Areas To Be Avoided” established around the Northern Hawaiian Islands.

Those in the Aleutians extend 50 nautical miles from shore on islands at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula as well as Unalaska, Unimak, Adak, Atka, Kiska and Attu islands. But there are also passages outlined in-between each zone.

“One of the things that probably wasn’t taken into affect in Hawaii was when you get the winter storms, many mariners need to seek refuge in Bering straits where you have calmer weather than what you would see in the Pacific ocean and that was the reason for keeping the passage ways open so that way mariners can use them for storm avoidance,” explained PEarson.

In March, the International Maritime Organization approved the designations, but final approval falls to the IMO’s Marine Safety Committee.

“One of the things about going through the IMO process is it will actually put these ar eas to be avoided on charts – both international and domestic charts,” said Pearson.

Even though the areas will show up on maps and charts, they are only voluntary.

“Whether its voluntary or mandatory, people tend to adhere to them and insurance companies recognize these as well,” said PEarson. “So, if an operator is deviating from something that’s on the books, whether it’s recommended or mandatory, they do take notice.”

Under the IMO, the Coast Guard can still make the buffer zones mandatory. Once the IMO’s Marine Safety Committee gives their final approval, NOAA has six months to add the areas to charts.