Online teaching tool incorporates Bering Strait community members in oil spill response

Communities near the Bering Strait now have access to a new teaching tool and will be able to share information with various organizations and agencies about threats to arctic marine life, such as oil spills.

The Bering Strait Response Teaching Tool is now available online, thanks to a University of Alaska Anchorage student and the Defenders of Wildlife organization.

Allison Dunbar, a junior studying environmental engineering and biology at UAA, is project lead for the online teaching tool. She’s been working part time on the layers of the website for the last year in order to make the tool accessible to everyone, including those who live in the Bering Strait region.

“The local people will know the tides and the currents and will best be able to inform that response, and that is our ultimate goal,” Dunbar said. “By utilizing and working with the local experts, impacts to marine mammals and to the communities will be less, and for us, (that’s) a common sense thing, but we want it to be written into the protocol for response agencies.”

Dunbar explains what information can be accessed through the online teaching tool.

“The content in the BSRTT includes layers that show where spill response equipment is housed, whether it’s in Kotzebue or Nome and some other communities throughout the area, and it is also showcasing some of the different response areas that are used by the Coast Guard and other spill response agencies,” Dunbar said. “That’s to say if oil was to come to shore, what areas would be focused on first.”

With a significant marine mammal population present in the Bering Strait region, and the various threats to them, Rhonda Sparks said the online teaching tool was created to streamline the oil spill response process and cut response time.

“You know, after talking a lot with our partners and spill response agencies, that is what’s most beneficial to them in a response situation, is having the community members who are knowledgeable of the currents, knowledgeable of any debris the agency needs to be aware of. It cuts the response time in half to have those types of individuals participating in a response,” Sparks said.

Sparks is the arctic liaison for the Defenders of Wildlife. She is in charge of implementing the online teaching tool into local communities, which will involve her visiting and training residents throughout the region.

“Recognizing that internet in remote areas is unreliable, we have these screencasts that we can play, and we’ll go through the tool; we’ll go through different features of the tool; we’ll discuss spill response and spill response preparedness and any questions, comments, or concerns that communities have,” Sparks said.“I’ll take that back and share it with all of our partners at the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and EPA.”

Even though this educational tool helps inform its users about response plans to oil spills and other potentially harmful situations that occur in the Bering Strait, Sparks emphasizes that it will not be used to clean up or take action in those situations, but, instead, to share information.

“So, it’s not something the Coast Guard or EPA will use in the event of a spill, but it gives the communities a platform to kind of understand the complexity of a spill response,” Sparks said.

Anyone who uses the Defenders of Wildlife’s new BSRTT website can leave feedback and share their knowledge with the Coast Guard or other organizations that also use the tool.

Community trainings on spill response and the teaching tool in the Bering Strait region are expected to begin this month.

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