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Canada should restrict access to northern water corridors

By Pierre Leblanc      

Managing this beautiful but fragile part of Canada responsibly would further reinforce our position that the waters of the Arctic archipelago are internal waters, and that the Northwest Passage is not an international strait.

Members of Her Majesty's Canadian Ship Sakskatoon carefully maneuver the ship around a large piece of ice while travelling through the Amundsen Gulf during Operation Nanook in August 2015. Photograph courtesy of DND by Cpl Donna McDonald, AETE Imagery Data Systems
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The Canadian government should consider placing restrictions on the number of corridors allowed for access to the Arctic waters in order to reduce two important risks: loss of life and environmental impact.

The risk of a marine accident in the Arctic is not a theoretical exercise. In August 1996, the Hanseatic cruise ship ran aground in the Simpson Strait near Gjoa Haven, Northwest Territories. In August 2010 the MV Clipper Adventurer ran aground near Kugluktuk, Nunavut, and in October 2014 the fuel tanker MV Nanny ran aground for the second time in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut.

There was no loss of life, nor was there a significant environmental impact from the groundings, but in the case of the MV Clipper Adventurer, it took a Canadian Coast Guard vessel two days to arrive at the scene and provide support. In June 2016, the Oceanwide Expedition’s cruise ship Ortelius needed to be towed out of the Arctic following engine problems. It is therefore quite possible that a similar incident could happen to a cruise ship or other vessels sailing in the Arctic archipelago, which would then place them at the mercy of winds until a rescue ship would arrive.

In 2012 the Canadian Coast Guard initiated the Northern Marine Transportation Corridors Initiative (NMTCI) and has been working collaboratively with the Canadian Hydrographic Service and Transport Canada. Their objective is:

“The objective of Northern Marine Transportation Corridors is to enhance marine navigation safety in the North and develop a pragmatic planning framework for future Arctic investments through which the Government of Canada can regulate, prioritize and deploy its services and limited resources in a focused manner that is responsive to the evolving demand in Canada’s Arctic waters.”[1]

Limiting the number of routes would reduce various risks and it would reduce the cost of mapping them properly and putting in place the required navigation aids to support safe navigation. The selected routes would wisely take into account the paucity of search and rescue assets. Ships that need to operate outside of the defined routes could be required to have sufficient insurance to cover the cost of environmental clean-up if required, and have a recovery plan in place. Simply expecting the Canadian taxpayers to cover very expensive search and rescue operations in the Arctic may no longer be acceptable, especially for those adventurers in search of records or fame.

Even the amount of traffic allowed at any time on those corridors could be restricted because of the potential implications for the environment. One needs to be aware that increased maritime traffic will increase the incidence of black carbon. Not enough is known about the impact of black carbon on sea ice and snow. There are ongoing studies but it is suspected that black carbon is a significant contributor to the loss of arctic snow.

The work of VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, Tampere University of Technology, and the University of Turku on “Shipping Emissions in the Arctic” should make the measurement of black carbon emissions more reliable and improve our understanding of their impact in this fragile ecosystem.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada should also take the opportunity to reduce the tonnage requirements that triggers the compulsory reporting of vessels to the Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone (NORDREG). At present, only vessels of 300 tons and above have to report. The review should make it compulsory for commercial vessels carrying passengers or hazardous material to report to NORDREG, regardless of size. This information would provide a more accurate domain awareness picture.

Several articles of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allow countries to put in place non-discriminatory regulations to protect the environment.

On March 10, 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau and the President of the United States released a joint communique acknowledging the “sensitivity” of the Arctic and the need for “low impact shipping corridors,” but that may not be sufficient. The Pew Charitable Trusts, on the other hand, released the results of their analysis in April 2016 titled, “The Integrated Arctic Corridors Framework.” The organization’s comprehensive analysis takes into account several key factors such as the potential impact on sensitive environment, the interests of the industry, and that of the Inuit.

The Inuit leadership and territorial governments will need to be consulted. The Prime Minister and the President also “committed to collaborating with Indigenous and Arctic governments.”

The selection of the corridors may bring economic opportunities to the Inuit but also significant risks to their quality of life. Their traditional harvesting areas could be affected by environmental incidents, their traditional routes over ice could be disrupted, and their communities—generally located near the coast line—could be very severely impacted by spills pushed ashore by high winds.

Managing this beautiful but fragile part of Canada responsibly would further reinforce our position that the waters of the Arctic archipelago are internal waters, and that the Northwest Passage is not an international strait.

[1] Canadian Coast Guard presentation 2-3 March 2015

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