K. Joseph Spears

The summer of 2017 has seen the Arctic continuing to warm with sea-ice diminishing by both extent and volume. The last decade has seen a constant Arctic warming trend that has resulted in increased global interest in the region and increased marine activities which bring with it increased marine risks. The Arctic is a region that has very little marine infrastructure and organic marine response capability. This past year, the Finnish ice breaker Nordica departed from Vancouver on July 4 to make the earliest eastbound transit through the Northwest Passage arriving in Nuuk, Greenland on July 29. The year 2016 saw the non-ice-strengthened cruise ship Crystal Serenity making history, completing a successful and well-publicized NW Passage transit. The vessel will be doing the same again this year to a sold-out capacity of 1,000 passengers with the assistance of escort vessel RRS Earnest Shackleton. The future is here: Increasing international marine traffic in our Arctic waters presents challenges to Canada’s ability to manage its ocean space, and challenges existing Canadian marine response capability, which includes search and rescue (SAR).

Canada’s Arctic waters are no stranger to expedition cruise ship traffic which has been occurring since the mid-1980s with ice-strengthened vessels. As the article on the 2010 grounding of the Clipper Adventurer, in Canadian Sailings’ most recent Arctic issue, has shown, major marine incidents have occurred even on well-maintained vessels with experienced crews. Greater marine activity and more frequent cruise ship voyages increase the potential for marine incidents which, from a risk management standpoint, are low probability, high consequence events. That is to say they have a low probability of occurring but when they do, the consequences are major. From a risk management standpoint it is best to prevent these incidents from ever happening. Canada invests heavily at the risk prevention phase through detailed Arctic Shipping Pollution Prevention Regulations which includes requirement of ice navigators, more broadly aids to navigation, NORDREG, radio communications, marine publications, hydrographic charting, and vessel traffic services, amongst others. At the international level, the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) recently adopted Polar Code also takes a risk management approach to vessel operations as a key element. Canada pioneered many of these requirements beginning with the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act passed in the early 1970s.

However, marine incidents can and will happen as the volume of marine traffic increases. That triggers the response phase of risk management. Canada needs to be able to respond robustly, especially with the potential increase in cruise ships which carry large numbers of passengers that present special challenges given the large number of persons. This marine response capability must be balanced against finite resources, budgets and cost recovery for navigational services.

Canada has both domestic and international obligations for SAR. Canada’s National SAR program has been in place since 1986. However, the Royal Canadian Air Force first commenced dedicated SAR operations in 1947. Canadian Joint Operations Command has operational control of Canada’s SAR resources for marine and aviation incidents. As for marine SAR in the Arctic, the Canadian Coast Guard provides primary response capability, with secondary capabilities provided by government vessels and vessels of opportunity that can be brought to bear in a particular incident, subject to the control of SAR rescue coordinators based in one of three joint rescue coordination centers (JRCCs) located at Victoria, Trenton, and Halifax. Section 130 of the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 gives broad power to rescue coordinators at the JRCC to divert civilian vessels and aircraft for a SAR response, assuming such assets are nearby, and are able to communicate and respond. The availability of capable assets that can act and that are able to communicate represent major challenges in Arctic SAR operations.

Canada’s Arctic is primarily the responsibility of Trenton JRCC with the eastern portion under the control of Halifax JRCC. There are no dedicated SAR resources adjacent to Canadian Arctic waters. Both SAR air assets and vessels operate from southern Canada, and are often tasked on an individual basis. For example, all Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) icebreakers in the Arctic during the summer months could be tasked by JRCC to respond to a marine SAR incident. These heavily-utilized CCG vessels will be engaged in various activities, but a SAR response always takes priority. For example, in the case of the Clipper Adventurer grounding in 2010, luckily there was a Canadian CCG icebreaker quite close by to the grounding, and was able to render assistance. That will not always the case, given the vastness of the region and the limited number of icebreakers in Arctic waters during the summer months.

The SAR component of sovereignty and our international obligations is often overlooked. Canada has signed a variety of international agreements to provide SAR services. Canada is a signatory to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979 , the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and International Civil Aeronautical Organization (ICAO) agreements which have matured into a SAR blanket that cover the world’s oceans and airspace.

SAR is a key component of the exercise of a nation’s sovereignty and the interaction of alleged rights of transit passage under the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC). The right of transit through the Northwest Passage (which the United States considers an international strait), is subject to the right of transit passage. LOSC also covers the right of overflight for aircraft above the strait (Article 38), not just the right of ­surface vessels to navigate through such waters. The responsibilities and legal implications therefore require that SAR requirements be carefully considered and accounted for.

Additionally, under Article 98 of the Law of the Sea Convention, there is a positive obligation on the coastal state to provide SAR:

Article 98(2). Every coastal State shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate effective search and rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea and where circumstances so require by way of mutual regional arrangements co-operate with neighboring States for that purpose.

It is interesting to note that the Arctic Council’s first international agreement which was championed by Canada is on the subject of Arctic search and rescue. On May 12, 2011, member nations of the Arctic Council – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, and Sweden – met in Greenland to sign the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic. It was the first legally binding instrument negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council. It coordinates life-saving international ­maritime and aeronautical SAR coverage and response among the Arctic States across an area almost the size of Russia.

The concerns that led to the Agreement are real. For instance, are Canadians aware that we have had two cruise ships grounded in Canadian Arctic waters? In 2010, M/S Clipper Adventurer grounded in the western arctic. Two years earlier, M/S Explorer, an expedition cruise ship controlled by a Canadian company sank while on an Antarctic cruise. Luckily all onboard survived these marine incidents. With increased arctic activity, especially cruise vessels with large numbers of passengers, incidents will certainly occur. The Arctic Council’s Arctic Shipping Assessment 2009 Report, a four-year multinational review, had this to say on the current state of Arctic SAR:

Search and rescue infrastructure in the Arctic is limited. The most significant emerging challenge to existing SAR infrastructure arises from the increase in marine tourism and passenger vessels operating in Arctic waters. As large passenger vessels continue to operate more frequently and farther north in the Arctic, the prospect of having to conduct mass rescue operations with limited SAR resources increases. Recent growth in Arctic marine tourism is outpacing infrastructure investment, development and support through the region. (Page 172)

Little has changes since the Arctic Shipping Assessment has been completed, other than an increase in Arctic marine traffic.

Findings from the 2009 Arctic Council’s Shipping Assessment on SAR included:

Emergency response capacity for saving lives and pollution mitigation is highly dependent on the nation’s ability to project human and physical resources over vast geographical distances in various seasonal and climatic circumstances. The current lack of infrastructure in all but a limited number of areas, coupled with the vastness and harsh environment, makes carrying out her response significantly more difficult in the Arctic. Without further investment in development and infrastructure, only a targeted fraction of the potential risk scenarios can be addressed. (Page 187)

Given the clear statements made in the report, the Arctic Council and the International SAR Agreement contemplate increased Arctic SAR capability especially as it relates to cruise ships. Article 3 requires an “adequate and effective SAR capability.” Canada as a nation cannot hide behind a business-as-usual facade, given the clear words of the Agreement and the groundwork that led to the consensus and quick signing of this international treaty. This is especially so with increased cruise ship activity.

The International Arctic SAR Agreement specifically holds that it is made in accordance with the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, and the 1944 Convention on Civil Aviation, which are well-established and widely recognized sources of international law on search and rescue. This international agreement creates an additional regime for the Arctic based upon existing norms. The Agreement sets out that each member state is given a particular search and rescue area for which it is responsible, and safe and effective measures must be taken. The overall goal is to coordinate international SAR coverage and response in the Arctic. What we are now seeing with increased cruise ship activity is that real marine risks arise both with respect to search and rescue and also pollution response capability.

Arctic SAR is not without its challenges. Canada has pioneered the development of Arctic SAR. We can be proud of our expertise and the heroism of the professionals and volunteers who make SAR work in one of the world’s most hostile environments. In the case of the Crystal Serenity, there was a very robust vessel-led response capability. This included an assist vessel, icebreaker RRS Earnest Shackleton that had been chartered for the voyage to accompany the cruise ship on its voyage, with a variety of additional equipment (including pollution response equipment) and a highly experienced crew coming along to support a response to any marine incident that the Crystal Serenity might have encountered. This was in addition to support provided by the Canadian Coast Guard. However, in the groundbreaking 2016 voyage, very little sea-ice was encountered.

It is still early days of Arctic cruise ship activities. The owners and operators of Crystal Serenity are to be congratulated and encouraged for the path they blazed. It has set the bar very high for voluntary Arctic vessel operations. However, it may well be that not all owners will spend the time, and substantial money and effort that was expended in these recent voyage. It is important to recognize that this was something that the vessel owner did over and above any regulatory requirements. As more and more cruise ship operators look for new products and adventures for an insatiable market, cruise ship activity is going to increase in Arctic waters.

Canada will need to increase its marine response infrastructure in the region and will need to develop new models and partnerships with private enterprise. A strong, coordinated, Arctic SAR response will be needed. This will require the input and assistance of Canada’s First Canadians – the Inuit. This is nothing new for Northerners – we need to merge the latest in technology with ­traditional skills to make this work.

Canada needs to commit far greater funding to make sure we have the SAR assets that are needed, that they are available when they are needed, and that we have additional properly-trained personnel that can respond in a timely manner. The risks are real, and Canada has both domestic and international obligations to fulfill. We need to “have adequate and effective SAR capability in the Arctic”. Successful marine response is about teamwork and partnership at the local, national and international levels, but it’s also about funding to purchase and deploy the necessary equipment. Maybe Crystal Serenity can serve as a model.

K. Joseph Spears has a long-standing interest in Arctic Search and Rescue both as a user and practitioner and policy analyst. He assisted in Canada’s contribution to the Arctic Council’s Arctic Shipping Assessment and has worked with the National Search and Rescue Secretariat on Arctic’s SAR. He can be reached at joe.hbmg2@gmail.com.