May 1, 2009

Cooperation urged as Arctic shipping boom looms

Ministers call for higher standards

JANE GEORGE

More international cooperation can prepare the Arctic for an expected boom in shipping traffic, the circumpolar world's foreign ministers agreed at an Arctic Council meeting this week in Tromsø, Norway.

This cooperation will require higher shipping standards, improved safety, and common standards for protecting the Arctic environment and Arctic residents from, says the 200-page Arctic Marine Assessment Shipping Assessment report.

The report was issued April 29 to top officials from the Arctic Council's eight member states, Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland.

The Polar Star makes its way through heavy ice. A recent mock emergency exercise in Halifax looked at what would happen if this ship hit an underwater object in the High Arctic.
(PHOTO COURTESY OF POLAR STAR EXPEDITIONS)

The biggest potential shipping threat to the Arctic marine environment is the release of oil through accidental or illegal discharge, says the report, written by more than 15 authors from Canada, Finland and the United States.

But the potential harmful effects of Arctic shipping also include ship strikes on marine mammals, the introduction of alien species, disruption of migratory patterns of marine mammals, noise produced by shipping and soot from emissions, the report's authors say.

Marine access to the Arctic Ocean has changed in "unprecedented ways driven by global climate change and a demand for resources," note the authors, who also received contributions from more than 50 international contributors, workshops and community meetings held around the circumpolar world.

For the moment, the Arctic Ocean is a region with limited infrastructure in most areas, lacking communications, response capability and other basic services that are readily available in lower latitudes, they say.

To prepare for the expected increase in shipping traffic, the report's authors make recommendations that they say are "critical to the future protection of Arctic people and the marine environment."

A major section of their three-part recommendation package deals with protecting Arctic people and the environment.

These recommendations include calls for a survey on how indigenous people use Arctic marine resources as well as more communication and collaboration with Arctic communities "to increase benefits and help reduce the impacts and from shipping."

The recommendations also suggest more protection for areas affected by climate change or with a special cultural or ecological importance.

The recommendations targeting the environment also want to see:

Protection from invasive species through tighter regulations on ballast water stored and released from ships;

More oil spill prevention measures - "the highest priority in the Arctic for environmental protection;"

Protection for marine mammals; and

Reduction of polluting emissions from ships.

Carrying out the recommendations will fall to Arctic governments, industry and public-private partnerships, they say.

For the report, experts looked at all types of marine transport: tankers, bulk carriers, offshore supply vessels, passenger ships, tug-barge combinations, fishing vessels, ferries research vessels, and icebreakers.

They also examined the various ways in which shipping is used in the Arctic, international, commercially or for tourism, and looked at geography, climate and sea ice, the history of Arctic marine transport and governance of Arctic shipping, among other topics.

Some of the report's final recommendations on marine safety and infrastructure say that there is a need for:

Overall, the report's authors found that Arctic voyages through 2020 will be "overwhelmingly destinational," that is going from point A to point B, rather than trans-Arctic, that is, across the circumpolar region.

"A lack of major ports, except for those in northern Norway and northwest Russia, and other critical infrastructure will be significant limitations for future Arctic marine operations," they say.

But they point to the development of the Mary River iron ore deposits on Baffin Island.

The Baffinland project would see a fleet of $200-million, 185,000-tonne tankers shipping 18 million tonnes of ore, year-round, to European markets for a minimum of 25 years. This shipping could start as early as 2015.

The Arctic Marine Assessment Report follows 2004 Arctic Climate Assessment report, whose findings said that reduced ice in the Arctic Ocean due to global warming "is likely to increase marine transport and access to resources."