By Brian Dunn

The changing landscape of the Canadian Arctic has also changed the customer base of the Canadian Coast Guard, according to its Senior Director, Safe Shipping and Economic Intelligence. In addition to supporting community resupply initiatives and icebreaking to access arctic communities, the coast guard is becoming more involved with the cruiseship industry and ships operating on the Northern Sea Route.

“The polar ice cap has been cut in half since 1979 and nowhere on earth has climate change had such an impact as the Arctic,” Neil O’Rourke said during a presentation at the 10th Annual Shipping Summit in Montreal. “Some Inuit communities are planning on moving, because their traditional sources of food are no longer there, and some U.S. communities are looking at rising water levels and planning their future. Even if we stop greenhouse gas emissions today, climate change will continue.”

The Coast Guard needs to increase its presence in the north before the increase of marine traffic, as Asia looks at cheaper ways to transit to Europe, Mr. O’Rourke added. Another aspect of the Coast Guard’s role is reconciliation with First Nations since the Coast Guard represents the federal government in certain communities and helps deliver on Ottawa’s Oceans Protection Plan (OPP) mandate. This includes building local emergency response capabilities.

“Arctic tourism has increased by 28.5 per cent in the last three years. Our concern is with companies not interested in working with us. Tourism is an important economic tool for the north, but only if it’s done the right way. Some smaller cruiseships are venturing outside traditional shipping corridors.”

Resource development in the north is not limited to fossil fuels either, with Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation shipping three million tonnes of iron ore in 2016. The Canadian Coast Guard is working with the United States Coast Guard to implement low-impact shipping corridors to make passage through the region as seamless as possible, said Mr. O’Rourke.

Part of the $1.5 billion OPP involves investments in seasonal inshore rescue boat stations and additional equipment on the environmental response side. There is also $12 million allocated to acquire and install four multi-beam sonar systems on icebreakers and $1.7 million to review aids to navigation systems in the Arctic. In addition, the Coast Guard is looking at drones to potentially replace ships in search and rescue operations, especially if drones can be made to carry survival kits that could be dropped to the ground from drones instead of from helicopters.

“Can other technologies fundamentally change the way we do things now? What role does electronic navigation play in the future? Is it more cost effective? What role does industry play supplementing delivery services? And is there an opportunity for public-private partnerships as we develop the north? We all have a role to play to ensure a better future for Arctic Canada,” Mr. O’Rourke concluded.

Canada’s first polar icebreaker, due in service by 2023, will be capable of sustained operations in the Arctic for 270 days, will accommodate a crew of 60 (with space for an additional 40 personnel), two medium-lift helicopters and be capable of breaking ice up to 2.5 metres thick, according to Julie Gascon, Assistant Commissioner, Canadian Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard has new investments for environmental response contingencies supported by 23 equipment depots in the Arctic for rapid environmental response for such things as oil spills, Ms. Gascon noted. “One challenge we face is the growing travel trend in the region for hunting and fishing and increased vessel activity which means an extended search and rescue season. Transits in the early 1990s were between five and ten and up to 30 in 2012. In 2016, there were 24 transits.”

Canada and the U.S. have jointly developed an emergency response system which Denmark will join this year. In order to better serve regional communities, the Coast Guard plans to prepare its icebreakers earlier in the season to have more vessels available sooner, said Ms. Gascon. The Canadian Coast Guard put out a Request for Information in December to private industry to help fill the service gaps with other vessels and plans to be much more reliable going forward.

With a shrinking ice cap, the requirement for Polar Class 6 vessels will also diminish over the next 20-30 years, according to Carleton University international law professor Jeffrey Smith. “And as of March 8, there were no pending economic measures to regulate GHG in the commercial shipping industry,” he added.

In terms of recent regulatory developments, 2016-2017 has seen a maturing of the somewhat fragmented global regulation of Arctic shipping with the Polar Code coming into force on January 1 of this year, said Mr. Smith. There is also a moratorium, to be reviewed every five years, on seabed petroleum exploration in Canadian and U.S. Arctic waters that took effect in December, 2016.

“An organized central Arctic fisheries regime is also being pursued, because we don’t know how fish stocks have been affected by climate change…and because more countries show an interest in the fish stock as ice continues to melt. At the same time, territorial claims in the area remain dormant and no new extended continental shelf claims are pending, but Canada’s claim is being developed.”

Charting the Canadian Arctic is the responsibility of the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) and since 1998, it has been using multi-beam sonar (MBS) technology (versus single beam sonar) and by 2020, all four of its vessels will be equipped with MBS, according to George Schlagintweit, CHS Operations Manager, Central and Arctic Region.

While all of the Canadian Arctic is charted, only three per cent of northern marine transportation corridors (NMTC) are surveyed to modern standards and 32 per cent of NMTC are surveyed to adequate standards, he said. The remaining areas are either spot soundings, track lines (reconnaissance) or unsurveyed. “The need for enhanced navigational products in the Canadian Arctic has been acknowledged at the federal level and by collaborating with the Canadian Coast Guard, CHS is making significant gains in developing hydrographic capacity in the Arctic to address an emerging need. But the only way to make significant gains to address the challenge is via dedicated ship time,” said Mr. Schlagintweit.

The first passenger cruiseship in the Arctic was MS Explorer in 1984, followed by a handful more in the 1990s. In the mid-2000s, the Northwest Passage was being promoted and there are now between 8-10 ships doing up to 10 different itineraries, according to Alana Farber, Vice-President Operations and Human Resources, for Adventure Canada cruises.

“The Arctic sailing season is typically only two to five weeks a year, but there is more demand to keep ships operating longer. Now the season runs from July to mid-September.”

There was a spike in demand in 2013-2014 because of new smaller European operators. Last year, 3,500 tourists cruised the Canadian Arctic, including 1,000 passengers on Crystal Serenity. But that pales in comparison to 25,000 passengers who cruised around Greenland last year and 50,000 around Norway, said Ms. Faber. That may change as more expedition style ships (smaller vessels that can operate closer to shore and offload adventurers) are being built, such as by the owner of Crystal Serenity, which is building a 200-passenger vessel.

Canadians make up 70 per cent of Arctic tourists who are predominantly 60-plus singles, followed by Americans, Germans and Australians. According to Ms. Faber, one of the biggest selling points for her company is the history of the Northwest Passage. “Passengers want to retrace the steps of past explorers like Benjamin Franklin, connect with the indigenous population and learn about their culture and art and learn about what kind of economic opportunities they have, and the impact of global warming on the north.” Tourism generates about $40 million in revenue annually in Nunavut or roughly three per cent of its GNP, said Ms. Faber.

An area of contention is that some cruiseships don’t pay locals if they cancel a scheduled visit to their community and cruiseships operating in the Canadian Arctic need 30 permits versus just three each for Greenland and Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole. “The challenge for regulators is a lack of resources to enforce regulations. A big fear is that some cruiseship operators don’t have the experience to navigate the Passage safely.”

The OPP, Polar Code and unmanned aerial surveillance will all be major contributors to Canada’s Arctic priorities, according to Laureen Kinney, Assistant Deputy Minister, Safety and Security, Transport Canada. The OPP has five main objectives, namely supporting safe and clean marine shipping, building partnerships with indigenous and coastal communities, increase economic opportunities for Canadians, improve marine safety and protect the marine environment. While the Polar Code will supplant the Arctic Waters Pollution Protection Plan in Canada, Ms. Kinney doesn’t feel the Code will have any significant impact on the marine industry in terms of safety of navigation or pollution prevention. But improvements will be seen in vessel safety and the discharge of sewage. In addition, Transport Canada is funding the procurement of a high or medium altitude Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) for oil spill detection, Arctic sovereignty patrol, ice reconnaissance and illegal fishing patrol.