By Julie Gedeon
Ilja Leo Lang, Project Manager at the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), noted the extensive paperwork involved before any voyage
can take place in Canada’s North. “You need to deal with authorities at the national, provincial, regional and local levels, and fill out about 20 different forms that have nothing to do with tourist operations,” he told participants at the 5th Annual Arctic Shipping North America Forum in Montreal on Oct. 30. “The forms relate to whether you have plans for a mining operation or an infrastructure project such as building a roadway.”
Hoping to simplify the bureaucratic maze is one of the reasons that 29 worldwide expedition cruise operators have joined AECO. They include G-Adventures and One Ocean Expeditions from Canada, and Lindblad, Quark, and Abercrombie & Kent from the United States.
The main reason for creating AECO is to uniformly employ best safety and environmental practices. “All of our members agree to operate in the Arctic with the utmost respect for the fragile natural environment, local cultures, cultural remains, as well as safety hazards at sea and on land,” Mr. Lang said. “In addition to all existing regulations, our members are obligated to operate in accordance with AECO bylaws and guidelines.”
Established in Norway a decade ago, AECO currently has offices in Copenhagen and Longyearbyen, Norway, and now wants to strengthen its presence in Arctic Canada. Membership is restricted to sailing yachts and small cruise expedition vessels typically accommodating no more than 300 passengers. AECO draws its inspiration from the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) established in 1991.
By adhering to established best practices, AECO members are strengthening their social licence to operate in Arctic waters. ACEO’s operating guidelines cover everything from the avoidance of heavy fuel to speed, distance and noise regulations. Landing parties are restricted to no more than 100 people in uninhabited areas. There’s also a 20-to-1 visitor-to-guide ratio that’s strictly observed.
Passengers are given their own AECO guidelines as soon as they board their vessel. They are instructed not to take anything from the natural environment (including wildflowers) and not to leave anything behind.
They are also given information on how to respectfully interact with locals. “For instance, we instruct visitors to ask people for their permission before taking any photos,” Mr. Lang said.
AECO’s latest projects include site specific guidelines for 20 sites in Norway’s Svalbard islands. Taking a lead from IAATO site specific guidelines for Antarctica, AECO developed its compulsory guidelines with financial assistance from the Svalbard Environmental Fund. “We had a biologist, geologist, historian, marine experts and others determining where and how we can land, where birds and other wildlife should not be disturbed by people, and so forth,” Mr. Lang said. “We think this is important to the future of the Arctic and should also be done in Canada.”
The organization is currently developing a database of voyage itineraries to avoid several cruise ships ending up at the same destination simultaneously. The database along with a vessel tracking system will enable ships to check with each other when contemplating a change of plans. “It’s the same system that IAATO implemented a few years ago and works very well,” Mr. Lang said. “By knowing within 15 minutes where all the other ships are, we can work towards better planning, greater safety, and the avoidance of eventual conflicts at landing sites.”
An independent database and tracking system were deemed necessary after ACEO was unable to obtain the information gathered by existing monitoring agencies, including Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services (NORGREG).
Other funding from the Svalbard Environmental Fund has been used to decontaminate passengers by cleaning their boots and vacuuming their clothing before they land at remote sites. “And that’s because we know that one threat from Arctic expedition cruise operators is the spread of non-native seeds and micro-organisms,” Mr. Lang said. “This is something that started in Antarctica, and is now being tested in Svalbard, and eventually we hope to promote it in Greenland and Canada.”
AECO cooperates with several academic, research and governmental institutions to better understand the Arctic’s ecology. For example, the crews aboard expeditions keep a record of the birds and marine mammals they observe for Norwegian Polar Institute. “We also hope to do some crowd-sourcing in terms of hydrographic data and are working with Norwegian authorities to set this up,” Mr. Lang.
The association holds a conference for cruise operators in Oslo annually. AECO also organizes education sessions for expedition leaders every few years. This year’s session will take place in October in Copenhagen, Denmark.
AECO’s various working committees include one specifically on marine-related matters chaired by Leif Skog, captain of the National Geographic Explorer and Lindblad Expeditions’ Vice-President of Marine Operations. As Chair of IAATO’s Marine Committee, he spearheaded IAATO’s Emergency Contingency Plan for all vessels operating in Antarctic waters.
“Skog along with the other captains and experts on this committee together have 100-plus years of experience in Arctic and Antarctic navigation,” Mr. Lang said.
AECO creates operating manuals for every country’s waters on behalf of its members. “It will be very thick guide for Arctic Canada,” Mr. Lang said.
For more information about AECO, visit www.aeco.no/index.htm