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Alaska House Calls for More Stringent Measures on Vessels in Bering Sea

Vessel traffic in the Bering Sea is the focus of a new resolution that passed through the Alaska House of Representatives with a vote of 33-6 last week.

One of the sponsors of House Joint Resolution 19 is Representative for District 40 Dean Westlake.

“In a nutshell, what we are looking at is knowing who is out there, which way they’re going, their speed… We’re trying to keep everyone in their own lane, if you will,” stated Westlake.

This new resolution is aimed at incorporating a set of Arctic Marine Safety Agreements into the U.S.’s international agreements with countries like Alaska’s coastal neighbors. As Westlake explains, an Arctic Waterways Safety Committee will be involved in locally monitoring these agreements.

“And what it is, is Alaska municipalities, Marine Mammal hunting groups, and this, as well: the Arctic marine ship operators. And what they do is promote and identify safe and environmentally responsible shipping operations for us in the Arctic, here,” said Rep. Westlake.

Earlier this year, the International Maritime Organization put a new Polar Code into effect, which regulates how international ships operate in Polar waters.

If action is taken on Westlake’s resolution by the Senate and Governor Bill Walker, then the Representative says it will augment the existing Polar Code, with additional spill prevention measures for transiting vessels.

“There’s something called innocent passage. Now, if you’re going through and you’re not stopping at an American port, which is us, you can have your own safety standards, safety codes, ship codes, whatever you want over there — or you can have the lack thereof,” Westlake explained. “We want to see these safety codes in place for every ship that is going through, whether you’re stopping or not. We need that assurance that we are all on the same page when it comes to environmental responsibility.”

The future of this resolution depends on the Senate, but will not reach them until the next session in January of 2018. Regardless, Westlake says he is optimistic about the potential of House Joint Resolution 19.

“It has passed the House; the resolution is there, so our federal delegation already knows it’s in the works,” Westlake exclaimed. “And that’s a good thing. We broadcast loudly with a majority of the vote that this should happen, and I think, with that, we are going to have Senator Murkowski and Sullivan as well as Rep. Young out there going to bat and starting to push for this.”

Currently, Westlake and the rest of the Alaska Legislature are in the midst of a special session, focusing on balancing the State’s budget and managing its debt. The House convened yesterday while the Senate is scheduled to convene Wednesday morning.