The new Department of Environmental Conservation Southeast Alaska vessel traffic study shows that more ships are transiting the region than was previously thought. The study looked at all of the large vessels that travel though Southeast’s Inside Passage including cruise ships, ferries, and barges. DEC state on-scene coordinator Scot Tiernan said the department wanted to gain a better understanding of what is happening on the waterways.
“The study was moved along by the Costa Concordia grounding in Italy and realizing we had a large number of cruise ships and other large vessels in the area, but we didn’t really have a good handle or a good idea of where they went all the time and routing and possible risks associated with some of their routing.”
The Costa Concordia was a luxury cruise ship that grounded in January, killing 32 people. Tiernan said cruise ship routing in the region is fairly predictable, but local barges frequently change their routes depending on their cargo.
The study also revealed traffic that the department did not realize was traveling through the area. Each year, barges make 190 trips through the Southeast without stopping at any ports. They are delivering goods to other parts of Alaska. Because they don’t stop and they haven’t had any incidents or trouble, Tiernan said the state didn’t think about tracking their traffic.
“If there’s a problem with one of those barges we would be notified of it right away by the shipping company,” he said. “Since they haven’t had any problems, they haven’t had to notify us. That would have turned us on to the idea that there were some other vessels going through here that we hadn’t been tracking.”
Nineteen percent of all vessel traffic through the region is barges carrying dry goods. Eleven percent of the traffic is tankers carrying different types of oil. Safety gear, like oil spill response equipment and response vessels, is already stationed around the region in case any vessel of any type has trouble.
The study also revealed an increasing amount of traffic in and out of Prince Rupert, Canada. Vessels carrying everything from coal to grain to oil cut perpendicularly across the shipping lanes in and out of Dixon Entrance. In the 1970s, an accident in that area led to oil washing up on Alaska’s shores.
Tierman said increased traffic into the Canadian port means an increased risk to ships headed north. “Everything going to and from Seattle crosses the traffic lanes that are going from Prince Rupert to the Far East and coming back. So it’s a big ocean, but if you have a lot of vessels going back and forth, it’s always a possibility that they could meet somewhere.”
The DEC has shared the vessel traffic study with the Canadian government for potential future discussions.
The department is still analyzing the new study and its ramifications. One of its possible uses is determining which environmentally sensitive areas the DEC should focus on first when determining emergency response plans. “The study may help us decide, OK, we have things that are already listed out, but as we look at the traffic study we’ll see where the choke points are, where the most traffic is, so we may readjust where we want to do the first round of these things to get them to the place where they most likely would be needed.”
He describes the study as a broad look at the overall regional traffic that could prompt more specific studies in the future.