DRIFTING IN ICE— The Norseman II, center, was drifting for two weeks icebound as scientists were aboard to conduct a walrus study.

Communities feel unprepared for potential oil spill at sea

June 4, 2024 the R/V Norseman II, a private research vessel owned by Support Vessels of Alaska  and contracted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and U.S. Geological Survey for a Pacific walrus study, became stuck in sea ice just north of Shishmaref with 14 scientists and nearly 40,000 gallons of diesel on board.

Two weeks later, after close monitoring from the U.S. Coast Guard, the vessel became free the sea ice and returned to Nome to conduct needed repairs, particularly to the rudder, on the vessel.

Once the R/V Norseman II reported mechanical failure, the Coast Guard said they had been in close, continuous contact with the Master of the Norseman II since they reported a mechanical “casualty” and were immobilized by ice. 

U.S Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kalankiewicz said the Coast Guard launched an Mh-60 Blackhawk helicopter to Bethel to be closer in reach for the R/V Norseman II, as well as a C-130 “for overhead support”, and they repositioned the only national security cutter in the Bering Sea closer to the ice-bound vessel.

The Coast Guard said that they “positioned assets and remained in contact with Norseman II, but the crew of Norseman II did not request assistance and the vessel was determined not to be in immediate distress.

The Coast Guard continued to monitor the situation closely, but since the vessel ultimately was freed from the ice and transited under its own power to Nome, the Coast Guard took no further action.”

“Fortunately, there was no pollution incident that resulted from the Norseman II being stuck in sea ice, but it seems like this is a great opportunity to engage with communities and stakeholders in the region to discuss preparing for the next time there’s a potential threat of release,” wrote Kim Maher, of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, to the Nugget.

While the vessel managed to get out of the ice without any incident, the specter of a possible oil spill during prime subsistence hunting season left communities uneasy.

The Nugget previously reported that one of the lead scientists on the mission, Dr. Irina Trukhanova, had promised to keep in continual touch with local villages during her mission on R/V Norseman II. She provided evidence to the Nugget that she emailed tribal coordinators of several villages on June 7.

However, the emails didn’t seem to reach their intended destinations.

The emails were addressed to Sean. C. Komonaseak, who is no longer the tribal coordinator for Wales; Joanne Keyes currently holds that role.

Trukhanova misspelled the email address to Shishmaref,  so the email never reached their village.

She also included Diomede’s Patrick Omiak Sr. in the email chain, who has been dead for over three years.

Tribal coordinator of Diomede, Frances Ozenna, said about communication from federal entities that “it kind of changes how much information comes into a community if they are already dealing with consortiums.” In this case the emails went to Kawerak addresses, which is a non-profit that represents 20 federally recognized tribes in the Bering Strait region.

The USFWS  said to have also emailed the villages of Teller and Kotzebue, however, Wesley Okbaok, tribal coordinator of Teller, and Alex Whiting, Environmental Program Director of Kotzebue, both searched their emails and could not find any evidence of anything from USFWS on June 7.

Anna Oxereok, president of the tribal council of Wales, said “I didn’t even know that they were stuck until I read it [in the Nugget].”

When replying to questions from the Nugget pertaining to the mission, Dan Bjornlie, of USFWS Walrus and Sea Otter Program Marine Mammals Management maintained that there was no emergency and no safety concerns as the vessel drifted in the ice.

“The research vessel’s movement was impeded by sea ice for 14 days. During this period, the vessel slowly drifted with the ice due to a combined effect of winds, currents, and tides. The situation did not pose an emergency, as there was no structural damage to the ship, no safety concerns for the crew or danger to the environment or coastal communities.

The vessel did not pose a hazard to wildlife at any point of the drift. The vessel was in a large area of continuous pack ice that did not contain walruses, which use areas of open water and unconsolidated ice when migrating to their summer foraging grounds,” he wrote in an email to the Nugget.

During the time they were ice-bound, the scientists collected no walrus samples.

USFWS and USGS initiated communication and outreach during the winter prior to each walrus research cruise. “We first present research plans to the Eskimo Walrus Commission, which is the FWS co-management partner for Pacific walruses.  In addition, we presented research cruise plans to numerous other organizations in-person, including the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, the North Slope Borough Wildlife Commission, the North Slope Borough Planning Commission, the Native Village of Gambell, and the Native Village of Savoonga,” Bjornlie wrote.

For the next field season, he said, they are planning to include additional contacts and communication methods in their communications plan to improve awareness regarding walrus research cruises.

If the situation with the R/V Norseman would have deteriorated, the Coast Guard said, federal, state, local, and tribal agencies would have been notified, and a Unified Command would have been established to respond.

Yet last year, during a Coast Guard exercise in the Bering Sea that tested emergency communications and emphasized the declaration of a Spill of National Significance the response activation call and incident specific Alaska Regional Response team activation “did not involve direct notification of tribes.”

SVA, the owners of the R/V Norseman II, did not respond to comment when asked about any lessons learned or operations that they’d do differently on future missions.

Unprepared for disaster
According to the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan counsel on global affairs, “The loss of sea ice has made Arctic waters more traversable, increasing maritime traffic. Shipping activities pose complex risks to marine life and communities on both sides of the Bering Strait. Risks include pollution by fuel oils or cargoes from groundings or collisions, marine mammal disturbance or displacement from vessel noise, vessel strikes on whales and seabirds, risks to human life, introduction of invasive species, and more. These dangers are compounded by rapid climate change in the region.”

Ozenna echoed the Wilson Center’s statement, saying that if anything happened that would contaminate the ocean or ice and “we’re unable to continue subsistence, that changes every aspect of how we survive in this community…. We do see vessels passing through a lot more in the past eight years [than] we have since I grew up here.”

She also expressed concern about any vessel in ice affecting the migration of marine mammals, and, she noted that the R/V Norseman II was stuck during subsistence harvest season.

Every community that the Nugget spoke to in the vicinity of the Norseman II incident – Diomede, Shishmaref, Brevig Mission, and Wales – expressed serious desire for more oil spill response equipment and training.

According to Kevin Knowlton, Emergency Preparedness Specialist for Kawerak, the villages, and others in the region, have not received oil spill response kits since the early 2000s, when the National Guard distributed 55-gallon drum kits meant to collect smaller spills.
And many of those kits were pillaged for personal protective equipment during COVID-19.

“Each community should have a connex of response stuff,” Knowlton said.

He advocated for training as well, reminding that “training is a perishable skill.”

Sara Seetot, member of the tribal council of Brevig Mission, said, “We don’t have much gear,” and expressed extra fear not just from being on the ocean, but because Brevig is situated between two potential mines, Graphite One and Lost River.

Anna Oxereok, President of the tribal council of Wales, said that shipping has increased and in case of emergencies, “you know, we don’t have no way of responding.” She clarified that even if support came that the village would likely be the first responder. “We have to have some kind of response for the first however many, 8 to 10 hours, until somebody could come over,” she said

Oxereok expressed fear for her community’s food web, saying, “We don’t have domesticated cows or pigs or whatever. They have to realize that we still rely on the ocean, the land, and the sea.”
Ozenna, of Diomede, articulated similar concerns, “What we have now is going to be so limited to assist [in a spill] because we don’t have the equipment, we don’t have the supplies, and we definitely need to upgrade our telecommunication,”she said.

Alaska Chadux Network, a nonprofit oil spill prevention, removal, and response organization keeps a clean-up kit in Nome, and trains local vessels as part of a response team.

“We would work with Tribes individually and ascertain exactly what are their requirements,” President Buddy Custard told the Nugget.

He went on to explain that there are various types of booms and pumps for different environments.

DEC also provides oil spill response training and keeps a vessel-towing kit in Nome.

Yet the equipment and training, from either Chadux or DEC is not free, is usually offered in hub communities, not villages, and funding them is up to the tribes to figure out.  


The Nome Nugget

PO Box 610
Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
Fax: (907) 443-5112


External Links