NEW YORK, March 16 (UPI) -- An increase in shipping traffic in formerly ice-choked Arctic waterways poses a significant increase in risk to the region's marine mammals, researchers say.
It also presents a threat to local communities that rely on the animals for food security and cultural identity, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society reported Friday.
Climate change in Arctic waters has led to increasingly ice-free summers and fall, bringing new industrial developments, including oil and gas activities, and a rising number of large maritime vessels using either the Northern Sea Route over the Russian Arctic from Europe or the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic from the Atlantic, it said.
The gateway into the Pacific Ocean from both routes is the Bering Strait, an important migratory pathway for mammals such bowhead and beluga whales, walrus, seals and polar bears.
Whales in particular are threatened by vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, conservationists say.
"We need to ensure that the mutual interests shared by Alaska Natives and the conservation community for the health and safety of marine mammals are included in the protection of the region's natural resources," said Martin Robards, director of WCS' Beringia Program.