By K. Joseph Spears

While forecast levels of Arctic shipping have not meshed with actual traffic, recent marine incidents such as the close call with Nunavut owned and operated shrimp trawler Saputi off Greenland last month, and the forthcoming 2016 North West Passage voyage of the cruise ship Crystal Serenity highlight the need for a robust marine response capability to respond to possible arctic incidents. These events raise questions and heighten need for international cooperation on marine response in Arctic waters. The Arctic Council has been successful in reaching international agreements on both Arctic search and rescue and pollution response. However, these treaties represent agreements to cooperate – but do not require the Arctic nations to take tangible steps with regard to capability and capacity. These agreements are in addition to existing international agreements that apply globally to shipping and in the case of search and rescue, aviation. The devil is in the details. Arctic states, including Canada, must commit to spend money to create the necessary marine response capability and infrastructure.

The Polar Code

The International Code of Safety for ships operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code) was implemented by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2014, and set the standards for various regulatory requirements, including vessel operation and crewing. It will come into force in 2017, with voluntary guidelines in place since 2009.The goal was to set up an international uniform regime, rather than a patchwork of marine regulatory requirements imposed by the various Arctic nations. While many commentators have indicated that this represents a watering down of Canada’s Arctic shipping regulatory requirements, the Polar Code does not address specific requirements detailing the nature of individual countries’ individual response capabilities and marine infrastructure. It goes without saying that providing appropriate services in such a hostile and sparsely-populated part of the world is extremely costly which in a time of shrinking budgets and restraint creates added challenges to Arctic Ocean governance. Arguably, Canada has an opportunity to work with its Arctic neighbours to develop a robust Arctic capability. This can build on the announcement made in Washington on March 11 with respect to Canada – United States cooperation on the Arctic.

Lessons from Antarctic

On February 27, the Australian research icebreaker Aurora Australis ran aground in Horseshoe Harbour, near Mawson Station, Antarctica, after breaking its mooring during a blizzard. She was refloated on 27 February 2016 and is returning to port for repairs. The Japanese icebreaker Shirase, operated by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in support of Antarctic research, was offered to assist in getting the scientific researchers returned to Australia. In December 2014 a privately-owned Australian icebreaker came to the aid of the Russian research vessel MV Akademik Shokalskiy which had been trapped in the ice for ten days, and had been assisted by the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long and the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker USCG Polar Star. What these Antarctic incidents show is a need for international cooperation and the fact that in polar regions, no one coastal nation can go it alone: the distances are vast and the cost of specialized marine assets that operate in the polar regions is high.

F/V Saputi near-miss

The near sinking of Saputi last month raises important questions about Arctic marine response and SAR capability. The vessel, an ice strengthened stern trawler was fishing for turbot in Davis Strait, struck ice which caused water ingress into the cargo space below the waterline. The subsequent flooding of the vessel which carried a crew of 30 represented an imminent danger of loss of the vessel and survival of the crew.

The incident occurred within Canada’s Halifax Search and Rescue Region overseen by JRCC Halifax. Halifax SAR Region is led by Rear Admiral John Newton of the Royal Canadian Navy who pulled out all the stops in this response. Canada is responsible under international agreement for providing search and rescue services in the Halifax SAR region which extends north into the Canadian Arctic. JRCC Halifax planned to evacuate most of the crew from the vessel using a helicopter from Greenland. However, because of weather conditions, this was not possible. A massive search and rescue operation was launched from both Canada and Greenland, a Danish protectorate. The following morning, in an incredible feat of airmanship, Canadian C-130H SAR aircraft based at Greenwood, N.S. were able to parachute four gasoline salvage pumps to the vessel which assisted in keeping the vessel afloat. The incident occurred outside the operational range of Canada’s CH-149 Cormorant search and rescue helicopters which have a limited range over open water. The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker CCG Louis St Laurent was also tasked, but was at least two days away from the vessel. JRCC Halifax notified Danish Arctic command of the incident, resulting in the assistance of Danish Navy patrol vessel HDMS Knud Rasmussen. This vessel was able to get its technicians and another pump aboard Saputi to keep the holed and listing vessel afloat. Canadian SAR aircraft stayed continuously overhead throughout the operation to assist should there be possible sinking of the vessel.

The Danish vessel stood alongside as the Saputi made its way slowly through heavy seas under its own power with the pumps working at full capacity. The crewmembers were required to stay aboard the vessel and reported that the wheel house wings were touching the water because of the list as she made her way to the nearest port, Nuuk, Greenland. That the vessel survived the longest two day voyage is a testimony to both its Norwegian construction and its skilled Newfoundland and Nunavut crew who fought to keep the vessel afloat. It was a very serious SAR incident with a positive and happy outcome.

Looking Forward- Voyage of the Crystal Serenity

The Saputi incident highlighted the indispensable need for ongoing international cooperation and SAR planning. We are seeing a similar approach with the planned voyage of the cruise ship Crystal Serenity through the North West passage in August 2016 on her voyage from Alaska through Canadian waters to Greenland and then down to the New York. The vessel will carry 1070 passengers and up to 655 crewmembers. The vessel’s voyage has been sold out for over a year and there is a waiting list of 400.

While there are no mandatory pilotage requirements in Canadian Arctic waters, the vessel will carry two experienced ice navigators. Canadian regulations require one ice navigator who is experienced in ice navigation. These mariners have a wealth of commercial experience in the Arctic, and are an invaluable asset. In West Coast Canadian waters, all foreign flagged cruise ships carry two marine pilots at all times under the Pilotage Act.

Crystal Serenity’s voyage is a serious challenge for SAR planning and marine response in Canadian waters. As the obligations of the International Arctic SAR Agreement are no longer theoretical, but becoming very real, Canada is moving forward to undertake planning around this voyage by mobilizing all appropriate government resources. In the Canadian context, vessel regulation is administered by Transport Canada Marine Safety while the Canadian Coast Guard has only a limited role to play in this prevention aspect.

This April, Canada will be working with the United States Coast Guard in Alaska in a series of tabletop mass casualty exercises with respect to Crystal Serenity’s voyage. This builds on the U.S. Coast Guard’s forward leaning work in this area, and the coming together of the tabletop exercise is a very positive step, as it is better to stay on the prevention side and deal with problems before they become major incidents, potentially stretching Canada’s and other Arctic nations search and rescue resources to the limit.

In a positive step forward, the government of Canada has been working with Crystal cruise line to develop contingency plans for a variety of possible issues. Given the pioneering nature of the voyage, collaboration with knowledgeable government officials is to be congratulated, but is not mandated by the legislation. Accompanying Crystal Serenity will be the chartered RSS Ernest Shackleton, a support vessel that has been used for the British Antarctic Survey, which has the ability to break ice and is equipped with a helicopter for a variety of uses, including ice reconnaissance. The vessel will also make use of Canada’s Canadian Ice service, a specialized agency of Environment Canada that uses a variety of aircraft and space-based sensors to recommend the most ice free route given the vessel is not ice-strengthened.

Ernest Shackleton has icebreaking capabilities and a long history of operating in Antarctic and European Arctic waters. It will carry another ice navigator, a helicopter and other equipment for emergency response. It has been reported that the cruise line has sought the assistance of a variety of experienced Arctic mariners in planning this historic voyage. One Canadian consultant is experienced Arctic elder and highly experienced ice navigator, Capt. David “Duke” Snider of Victoria of Martech Polar Consulting Ltd. The vessel owner has developed a set of response and contingency plans, in keeping with and exceeding the international safety management regime to cover a variety of marine contingencies. No doubt marine underwriters have also had a lot to say about the navigational requirements of the voyage. A successful outcome is in everyone’s interest.

Arctic Mariners Matter

While some question the international status of the Northwest Passage, Canada’s Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act and regulations gives Canada the necessary authority to regulate shipping in the region through a variety of mechanisms. Given the experience of the parties, involved, the preplanning of the Crystal Serenity’s voyage is a positive step forward to engaging marine operations, especially when they may pose significant search and rescue, mass casualty, and pollution risks. The key is to develop a close working relationship and the sharing of information with all concerned, so that the risks of Arctic operations are minimized. This goes beyond the requirements of Polar Code and builds on lessons learned from past incidents.

Going Forward

Following the Saputi incident, there is call for a search and rescue base in the region, based on increased fishing and shipping activity. This base could be operated on a seasonal basis or could be forward deployment of search and rescue assets during times of increased marine traffic. What people don’t realize is that the Arctic fishery is becoming more important as melting ice increases fishing opportunities. Fishing vessels operate through the year in the region. While Canada awaits its fixed wing SAR aircraft capability and new icebreakers under the National shipbuilding procurement strategy (NSPS), we need to develop sustained dialogue and collaboration in greater formalized fashion in the future, rather than after marine incidents occur.

If we are to have sustainable Arctic development which includes marine ecotourism, we need to get this right. Cooperating with the United States as seen in Crystal Serenity planning and with working with Denmark/ Greenland as in the Saputi incident is a positive step forward. It appears that Crystal Serenity’s voyage is giving rise to collaborative approach, but does not lessen the need for Canada to invest in Arctic shipping infrastructure to meet obligations under existing international agreements. Canada also needs to ensure that knowledge of our arctic mariners is central in any marine response regime.

Joe Spears, principal of Horseshoe Bay Marine Group has been involved in Arctic SAR and the development of Canada’s Arctic Shipping policy. Joe can be reached at