Arctic shipping fraught with danger, operators say
Poor infrastructure, lack of charts and navigational aids create hazards for Nunavut, Nunavik ship operators
MONTREAL — Commercial shipping in Canada’s North remains a risky business because of serious shortfalls in infrastructure and navigational support from government, shipping operators said at an Arctic shipping conference this past week in Montreal.
With more ships travelling in northern waters, it’s just a matter of time until a serious accident causing either loss of life or damage to the environment occurs, they said.
Iqaluit, the largest community served by sealift vessels, is typical of hazardous ports served by Arctic shipping lines.
That’s because, despite its size, Iqaluit lacks basic infrastructure for shipping, said Suzanne Paquin, the chief executive officer and president of Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping Inc..
“We’re on our own up there. I think the government should be much more involved,” she said during the Montreal meeting.
Iqaluit lacks a safe and secure staging area for sealift vessels on the beach, she said.
And due to the 35-foot tides there, barges may only work about eight hours a day, often leading to delays.
These delays ripple down the line, because if there’s a hold-up in Iqaluit, generally the first stop for sealift ships, supplies are held up for other communities.
If better facilities were built on Iqaluit’s causeway, where tides are not such an issue, both time and money would be saved, she suggested.
“The Government of Nunavut has to do something,” Paquin said in an interview, noting that improving facilities in Iqaluit doesn’t appear to be a top government priority.
Conditions for ship operators are also dangerously substandard in smaller Nunavut communities, where there are no secure staging areas, lights or ramps.
Before ship operators can offload their vessels, they must first clear boats from the area.
Then, they have to ask people to stay away — a situation Paquin said wouldn’t be accepted in southern Canada, where harbours are secure and protected from passing traffic.
“What we do, we do at great risk,” Paquin said.
To compensate for the lack of equipment in Nunavut and Nunavik communities, NEAS’s vessels travel with their own kit of equipment — including generators, lights, forklifts and tugs.
But this means the ships have less room to carry essential supplies to the North, Paquin said.
Nunavik’s port facilities are marginally better than Nunavut’s due to an $88-million federally-funded marine infrastructure program, which built docks, ramps and roads in every Nunavik community.
This program gave sandy Kuujjuaraapik a more stable staging area, put a dock into Inukjuak, where ships can offload directly to shore, and provided Tasiujaq, where 50-foot-plus tides are among the highest in the world, with a dock located beyond the tidal range.
But other Nunavik communities, like Kuujjuaq, where ships navigate the dangerous Koksoak River and offload from barges, still need improvements to their infrastructure.
The lack of infrastructure has become more acute throughout the North over the past 10 years, due to the larger size of the more recent generation of sealift vessels and greater demand for supplies, Paquin said.
But that’s not the only challenge facing commercial shippers.
Inadequate charting of Arctic waters is the “single biggest issue in the Arctic,” ice expert John Falkingham said.
Charts are maps of the waterways that show navigators the safest sea routes to take.
But only about 10 per cent of Arctic waters are charted, and it will take 300 years to complete the job at the current rate, Falkingham said.
As for e-charting — a solution suggested by a Canadian Coast Guard official at the Montreal conference, that would be “farce,” said Richard Perron of Desgagnés Inc..
E-charting wouldn’t work in regions with sketchy telecommunications, which don’t even have basic infrastructure, such as harbour lights or buoys, Perron said.
A lack of safe anchorages — places with anchored tie-ups where ships can go when they get into trouble — also worries ship operators.
The MV Avataq, a 113-metre ship owned by Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping Ltd., had a near miss with disaster on Sept. 25, 2009, when winds exceeding 80-km an hour nearly dragged the disabled ship across the bay near Salluit.
Tugboats had brought the Avataq to Salluit earlier that week after it suffered engine trouble.
But their presence wasn’t enough to stabilize the ship.
The Avataq had to wait for assistance from a Coast Guard icebreaker, which sat with the Avataq for 10 days to anchor it down until repairs could be carried out.
This incident ended with any disaster causing a loss of life or damage to the environment.
But ship operators said if such an incident such as a major oil spill happened, that there’s a lack of equipment and know-how. What equipment there is relies on aging technology, they said.
This lack of capacity will be complicated in the future by uncertain ice conditions, particularly in the High Arctic and Northwest Passage, where “choke points” in narrow straits will continue to make navigation difficult, said Falkingham.
“Only ships with a high economic advantage will be attracted to the Arctic,” he said.
Participants at the two-day conference, organized by a U.K. group called Active Communications, said Canada has to decide what it wants to do with its northern waters — and then do it.
But Toronto-based maritime lawyer Marc Isaacs suggested that a multilateral treaty of Arctic regional states should implement a maritime “polar code” and other requirements on shipping.
He also predicted a flurry of new regulations for Arctic operations would result coming from the recent Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon blowout and its oil spillage.