By K. Joseph Spears

In Canada’s Arctic, the summer of 2014 was another series of firsts and successes. While much of the media focused on finding Franklin, one of a number overarching goals of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition which set out to find Sir John Franklin’s Royal Navy vessels HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which were lost somewhere in the Northwest Passage, the bigger story which has the greatest long-term impact for Canada, and Arctic shipping generally, was the voyage of the state-of-the-art icebreaking commercial bulk carrier owned by Fednav, M/V Nunavik. This vessel carried a cargo of nickel concentrate from the Raglan Mine in Deception Bay in Nunavik (Quebec) to China, raising many questions with international implications for Canada in the Arctic.

Fednav is a leading Canadian shipping company that has pioneered polar operations, has developed both ice classed vessels as well as an ice information service (Enfotec) that makes use of information from a variety of sources including satellites, aircraft, visual observations and ship based radar. The firm is making use of the latest technology, including the use of drones, to ensure that navigation is performed in a safe and environmentally-friendly fashion. The firm used social media to allow the outside world to be kept up to date on the vessel’s progress. All of a sudden, the Canadian Arctic has become very global, and is no longer just Canada’s backyard. It has the potential to become an international shipping route.

M/V Nunavik transited the Northwest Passage without any icebreaker assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard. In the past, starting with the voyage of Exxon-owned tanker M/T Manhattan in 1969 and 1970, commercial vessels have required icebreaker assistance. Nunavik’s voyage was a first because it highlights the fact that commercial vessels can successfully operate in the Arctic without government-provided icebreaker assistance. This highlights the need for appropriate navigational infrastructure to ensure safe shipping through these waters. Canada does not have the luxury of time. The need for appropriate shipping infrastructure is now.

Under Canadian Marine Transportation Security Regulations, and the Law of the Sea Convention, vessels transiting the Arctic need to provide 90 hours prior notice to enter Canadian waters. Any vessel can freely enter Canadian waters if it meets minimum standards and adheres to international conventions which Canada is a signatory to. They also have to report into the Canadian Coast Guard’s mandatory NORDREG system. Whereas in the past, commercial vessel owners sought the permission of the government of Canada, it is not an international requirement, and no permission is actually required. For that reason, Canada must be ready to accommodate the operation of domestic and foreign vessels in its Arctic waters, which creates potential demand for search and rescue services.

The recent breakdown of the Russian vessel M/V Simushir, drifting off Canada’s West Coast, highlights this issue. The vessel very nearly drifted aground, had it not been for the quick intervention of Canadian Coast Guard vessel CCG Gordon Reid which was able to get a towline on the casualty, and keep it off the beach, thus averting an environmental disaster. This incident had a happy ending but it highlights the radar coverage and pollution countermeasures gaps on a known international shipping great circle route from North America to the Indo-Pacific that passes through Canada’s 200 mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Canada has limited knowledge about commercial vessels, and their actual whereabouts in offshore Canadian waters. Foreign commercial vessels are entitled to be present in Canadian waters under international law which allows for the right of transit passage and/or innocent passage, subject to controls by the coastal state for environmental protection. In 1970, Canada enacted the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act which set standards for Arctic navigation that were codified under Law of the Sea Convention’s article 234.

In the case of the Simushir, it was only because a diligent Canadian Coast Guard Marine Traffic Services Communication officer at the Prince Rupert MTSC Vessel Center noticed the vessel on the radar display showed the “Not under Command” icon that the alarm was raised. Had that operator not been following the vessel, it is well possible that this vessel would have ended up polluting the remote and pristine coastline of Haida Gwaii. In Arctic waters, a small incident can be very costly and environmentally devastating.

Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a powerful tool for determining vessel positions (and is much more advanced than systems used for tracking aircraft), but is just one piece of the marine domain awareness puzzle in the Arctic, and needs to be part of an integrated system including other capabilities. In the Arctic, there are challenges with high-frequency radio communications that Canadian Coast Guard centres rely on to communicate with vessels, presenting serious challenges to maintaining marine domain awareness. However, this is the first line of defence for pollution response and ocean governance. Without appropriate tools enabling Coast Guard centres to ascertain the presence of vessels in potentially critical areas, marine traffic cannot be monitored or managed appropriately. While commercial vessels are required to have AIS transponders, smaller vessels are not. This may need to be re-examined when operating in Arctic waters. The NTCL fuel barge currently adrift off Alaska highlights a requirement for a greater number of vessels to be equipped with AIS in Arctic waters.

Much attention has been focused on the status of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Polar Code, a comprehensive regime for conducting shipboard operations that was discussed in previous issues of Canadian Sailings. The Polar Code is just one piece of an Arctic shipping governance mosaic. There is still much work to be done with respect to the development of the necessary Arctic coastal states infrastructure. The International Chamber of Shipping has made it clear that developing the necessary shipping infrastructure such as hydrographic charting, aids to navigation and marine communication should be a that priority for Arctic coastal states. How does Canada move forward on those priorities?

The gaps in Canada’s Arctic capability were recently reviewed by Canada’s Auditor General who held that “a lack of vision for the future of Arctic shipping is reflected in archaic maps and survey data, out-of-date navigation aids and icebreaking services that are being stretched too thin.” This problem did not develop overnight, and it won’t be solved overnight, but Canada needs to ensure that the necessary shipping infrastructure is put in place. Recently both RCN and CCG ships have been fitted with multibeam sonar to start some of the hydrographic charting work. Some of the navigational charts that are still being used today date back to the coastal mapping conducted by the British Admiralty during the Franklin expedition. Marine domain awareness and hydrographic charts are the pillars and foundation of pollution prevention and safety of life at sea, and it is therefore imperative for appropriate and reliable information to be available to Arctic mariners and on-shore support providers.

In the summer of 2014 it became evident that Arctic international commercial shipping has become a reality, and will be here to stay. Sir John Franklin was in the Arctic on a very specific mission. While he failed in that mission, he would have been very proud of the voyage of M/V Nunavik. As his legacy lived on, Franklin’s singularity of purpose to achieve a goal should be applied to Canada’s future shipping governance, and the development of its Arctic infrastructure.

K. Joseph Spears has a long-standing interest in Arctic and marine governance. He travelled to Deception Bay by freighter canoe along Hudson Strait. Joe can be reached at