By Alex Binkley

The Harper government has not moved ahead with the procurement of badly-needed new icebreakers even after two tough winters showed how much they’re needed, say three key maritime organizations. In a joint letter to Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, who is responsible for the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), the Canadian Shipowners Association (CSA), the Shipping Federation (SFC) and the Chamber of Maritime Commerce (CMC) point out the Harper government’s failure to reinvest in the Coast Guard.

“The existing icebreakers are already 35 to 37 years old and nearing the end of the service lives,” SFC President Michael Broad said in an interview. “Instead of ordering new ships, the government is putting money into life extensions of the icebreakers.”

“Icebreaking is hard on ships; it’s difficult work and the vessels have to be built for that work,” CSA President Robert Lewis-Manning said in an interview. He notes that while the government is considering alternatives to equip the Royal Canadian Navy with interim resupply ships, it isn’t applying that kind of thinking to the Coast Guard. It needs icebreaking help both in the Arctic and the south.

CMC President Stephen Brooks added in an interview that Canada “needs to make serious investments in icebreakers. The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River need a reliable fleet of icebreakers. We can’t go into a season without knowing what will be available.”

The association spokesmen and other industry insiders point out their frustration lies with the government. They say the Coast Guard does an admirable job of moving icebreakers around to cope with the challenges it faces such as the thick ice that coated the Great Lakes for the last two winters and delayed the start of the navigation season. Heavy ice has also been a problem in the St. Lawrence River and this year’s resupply of Arctic communities by ship was also fraught with ice problems. Another issue for the groups is the myriad of duties the existing icebreakers are assigned by various government departments.

Another worrisome sign is that funding for the Coast Guard will drop during the next few years. According to the 2015 budget, it will decline from $679 million in fiscal year 2015-2016 to $525.7 million the following year and to $466.5 million in the year after that. At that level, it will be hard pressed to maintain its current level of services, they say. The only icebreaker accorded any attention in the National Ship Procurement Strategy is the Arctic class ship John Diefenbaker and its delivery date has been pushed back to 2022 at the earliest, from 2018. Most observers expect it will take longer than that to complete. Even if it is delivered in 2022, one new icebreaker for the Arctic is hardly enough for that region and won’t relieve the shortcomings elsewhere.

By 2022, Terry Fox and Louis St. Laurent will have reached the end of their service lives followed in the next few years by Pierre Radisson, Des Groseilliers, Amundsen and Henry Larsen, representing about half the Coast Guard’s icebreaking capacity. Griffon and Samuel Risley, which are dedicated to the Great Lakes, are both old ships and the industry fears they could break down at any time. Larsen is currently scheduled for a life extension and Ann Harvey is undergoing a $30 million repair after running aground off Burgeo, Nfld in April. Both may be unavailable for icebreaking duties next spring. Life extension programs don’t usually replace old steel or power systems, leaving the ships still vulnerable to a breakdown while in operation, industry officials say.

The slow pace of contracts awarded to Irving in Halifax and Seaspan in Vancouver under NSPS adds to the disquiet in the industry. Even if the government decided today to proceed with new medium-duty icebreakers for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence, it could take six to eight years for them to be designed and constructed. “We can’t wait that long,” Broad says. The association spokesmen say the government should consider alternatives including working with foreign icebreaking companies that could supply Canada with help when required.

One such service is Arctia, a Finland-based icebreaker and ice-management specialist in the Baltic Sea. Its President, Tero Vauraste, met with federal officials and shipping industry representatives during a mid-summer visit to Canada. The company, which has vast experience in the Arctic and other northern waters, has eight icebreakers for hire and another under construction. “We’re looking into various options for collaborating with Canada,” he said in an interview. “Nothing has been decided but there will be further discussions. Currently our capacity is not fully utilized while simultaneously Canada has needs for its Arctic sealift.” Vauraste also suggested Canada and Finland could work together in the design and building of new icebreakers. “There is great potential for co-operation especially as Canada needs replacements for its icebreakers.” Government officials are scheduled to visit Finland for a closer look at the company’s operations.

However, with the drop in funding for the Coast Guard, it may not have the financial capacity to hire Arctia, industry insiders point out. Another option that is jeopardized by the funding reduction is for industry to build and supply the Coast Guard with new icebreakers on a lease basis. A similar debate is occurring on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes. The Lake Carriers’ Association has been leading a campaign for a second modern American icebreaker citing the heavy ice of the last two seasons. It points out that as Canada has a joint responsibility for Great Lakes icebreaking, and it needs to improve its capability. “The country used to have seven icebreakers stationed on the Lakes, but now just two are permanently assigned here,” notes President James Weakley.

After a number of the U.S. ships suffered extensive damage in the spring of 2014, some of his members kept their ships in port in March rather than put them at risk. The Association is hopeful that a motion in the Senate to authorize the building of a new icebreaker to join Mackinaw will come to fruition.

The icebreaker crisis is no surprise. The three Canadian associations have been warning about it for years. In November 2011, CCG released a comprehensive report on the state of its fleet and its discussions with the National Marine Advisory Board about future icebreaking requirements. Even though the report tries to paint a positive picture, the message in it is grim. “CCG is challenged to respond to all the needs of the marine shipping industry as there are a limited number of icebreakers. The minimum number of icebreakers required to adequately maintain key ice-covered areas during an average winter ice season is 14. However, given the current icebreaker conditions, this number cannot be interpreted as a guarantee these assets will be available.”

The Coast Guard says it has no spare vessels to replace icebreakers that are undergoing life extension work or experience an unexpected failure. It concludes by noting two additional medium-duty icebreakers dedicated to the Seaway and Great Lakes, together with a heavy-duty icebreaker should be available north from Quebec to help open navigation. With the 2011 report due for a review by the Advisory Board and the Coast Guard in 2016, the experiences of the past few years both in the Arctic and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River will be fresh in everyone’s mind.