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Report: Upgrade Canada’s Arctic Shipping Corridors

A new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Oceans North Canada calls for a network of shipping routes as part of its roadmap for transforming Canadian Arctic waters into a zone of economic activity that also offers safety and security, protects the environment and respects Inuit rights.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

During the summer of 2010, the MV Clipper Adventurer, a cruise ship with 128 tourists and 69 crew aboard, ran aground in Coronation Gulf in the Northwest Passage while en route to Kugluktuk, Nunavut. No lives were lost, but the beaching revealed the inadequacies of Arctic shipping – and the serious need for Arctic shipping policy reform.

In a new report, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Oceans North Canada calls on Canada’s new federal government to recalibrate its relationship with the Arctic and to address the expected increases in shipping traffic in the Northwest Passage in a way that improves safety and protects marine habitat.

“We wanted to home in on a path towards an Arctic shipping policy that is grounded in present shipping realities and gives Canada the tools to deal with the shipping pressures that are coming to bear on the north now,” said Louie Porta, one of the authors of the Integrated Arctic Corridors Framework and the policy director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Oceans North Canada.

Canada has more than 150,000km (93,000 miles) of coastline along the Arctic Ocean, stretching from Baffin Bay in the east to the Mackenzie River delta in the west. The coastline connects all four settled Inuit land claim territories and includes 53 communities.

Vessel traffic through the Northwest Passage has increased 166 percent since 2004, as sea ice has receded and created a longer shipping season. According to Canadian Coast Guard statistics, there were about 350 marine voyages within the Canadian Arctic in 2013. If the mining and tourism sectors grow in the Arctic region as they are expected to, traffic could more than double, according to a 2014 report by the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development.

Julie Gelfand, Canada’s environment commissioner, has previously criticized the federal government’s lack of vision for the future of Arctic shipping. Her 2014 audit found old maps and survey data and insufficient icebreaking services left the federal government unprepared “to deal with increased ship traffic in the future.”

Many groups, including government departments, academics and civil society groups, have previously made recommendations to improve Canada’s shipping policy. Government studies alone have supplied more than 170 individual recommendations. “However, the nation lacks a clear, cohesive vision for Arctic shipping policy, so these recommendations have fallen on agencies with limited resources to carry them out,” the report authors write.

Creating shipping corridors within the Arctic archipelago could minimize their impact on the environment, Inuit communities and their way of life and improve the search and rescue response, said Porta. “Corridors give people a roadmap to follow,” he said. “A robust corridor system is a recommendation for vessels to stick to a very, very small portion of the Arctic waters as opposed to now, where there are no limits – vessels can basically go wherever they want.”

Canada considers the Northwest Passage as part of its “internal waters,” which would give Canada the right to exclude ships from using it and require them to follow Canadian regulations. But other countries see things differently. The U.S., for example, considers the Northwest Passage to as an “international strait,” which gives it – and other countries – the right to use it to transit between Baffin Bay and the Beaufort Sea.

Developing a network of shipping routes through the Canadian Arctic must include a risk-based assessment of the region that looks at hydrographic surveys and charting, including water depths and submarine features, areas of ecological sensitivity, such as important habitat features and migratory routes, and socially sensitive areas that are used by the Inuit, the report specifies.

Government and Inuit groups have identified at least 38 areas of ecological and biological significance (EBSAs) occupying nearly 50 percent of Canadian Arctic waters. “There’s a high concurrence of vessel traffic patterns and areas of biological significance. We can’t say that ships can’t go where the environment is significant, but it’s possible to create a more flexible, dynamic policy that identifies what times of year ships can be in certain locations,” said Porta.

The authors offer eight recommendations toward building integrated Arctic corridors to address the expected increases in vessel traffic, curtail marine casualties and protect sensitive marine habitat.

  1. Establish a Canadian Arctic Corridors Commission, co-chaired by Inuit and the federal government.
  2. Consult and meaningfully engage Inuit.
  3. Integrate information on human and vessel safety, environmental protection and Inuit knowledge in a single Arctic maritime atlas that includes data on hunting areas, conservation planning zones, wildlife migration routes, cultural sites and marine protected areas.
  4. Identify and map shipping corridors through the Canadian Arctic that consider the region’s seasonal dynamics.
  5. Classify the corridors as low, medium or high risk.
  6. Target the corridors with investments in infrastructure and oversight, including port and harbor infrastructure, communications, icebreaker capacity and oil spill response equipment.
  7. Support safe and responsible vessel traffic by establishing protections for environmentally sensitive areas, such as reducing emissions, and seek out regulatory controls for changes to ship construction, equipment, trip planning and crew requirements.
  8. Monitor the corridors for vessel compliance and environmental change, and review and reassess the approach periodically.

“When you coordinate risk infrastructure, investment and shipping patterns, you can say that we don’t need to be everywhere all the time,” said Porta. “You can be in these core bottleneck areas.”

Under the proposed framework, shipping corridors would be identified by integrating human and vessel safety, environmental protection and Inuit rights; they would be managed using a tiered approach that matches risk with readiness.

“The Canadian Coast Guard welcomes this report as a part of the ongoing dialogue over the need for conservation and continued monitoring of vessel traffic in the Arctic,” wrote Fisheries and Oceans spokesperson Barbara Mottram in an email. “The Oceans North Canada report ‎recommendations link to our efforts to prepare for increasing marine traffic while improving safety.”

“Vessels have an interest in going through safe, charted waters where they can get reasonable access to emergency services, if things go wrong,” said Porta.

Related Reading

Top image: The Canadian Coast Guard ship Louis S. St-Laurent approaches the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy in the Arctic Ocean in September 2009. (USGS/Patrick Kelley)

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