Shippers mull over self-help icebreaking plan


Commercial shippers have offered to put their vessels at the Coast Guard’s disposal this summer to help the cash-strapped federal agency carry out its icebreaking duties.

The idea was floated during a meeting of shippers in Iqaluit earlier this week, and is expected to be contained in a list of recommendations issued by the Arctic Marine Advisory Board.

“A couple of the companies will have ships transiting the area and if we can enter into an agreement to use them during the season that is required in the western Arctic, it saves me time, in terms of not having to have a ship transit from Victoria, up to the North,” said Jim Quinn, the Coast Guard’s regional director.

Risked disrupting sealift

The Coast Guard had originally planned to retire its multi-purpose ship, Sir Wilfrid Laurier from the West and provide icebreaking services there by freeing up one of five icebreakers in the eastern Arctic on an as-needed basis.

But shippers balked, warning of costly delays and the risk of disrupting the annual sea-lift to dozens of remote Arctic communities.

Under the latest proposal, the Coast Guard would charter commercial vessels in the West with icebreaking capacity.

The private vessels, under charter to the Coast Guard, would also be used as a base for search-and-rescue operations and pollution control, as well as radio and navigational services.

“When I get those recommendations I’ll be pursuing them within the Coast Guard organization,” Quinn said. “I’m confident we’ll come up with a short-term solution.”

Shippers were generally encouraged by the summit’s outcome.

Spread too thin

But Cpt. Georges Tousignant of Montreal-based Nanuk transport reiterated the shipping industry’s main concern that the Coast Guard is trying to stretch limited resources too thinly.

“Right now when you require an icebreaker, the icebreaker’s not behind you. You always have to wait a half a day, a day. So by reducing the number, it could be two days, three days, four days…”

Those additional costs would eventually be passed on to users, Tousignant warned.

Another meeting of the advisory board, made up mostly of private shippers, is scheduled for April 8 and 9 in Montreal.

Quinn said he was very pleased by the level of cooperation the shippers have shown.

“The bottom line is that we’re putting forward some solutions that will reside within the existing fiscal framework I have to operate in.”

Jim Antoine, the GNWT’s transportation minister told MLAs last week that the government was also concerned about the changes in the icebreaker service, and would continue talks with Coast Guard officials.

High Arctic MLA Levi Barnabas reminded Antoine about what can happen when sea-lift service is disrupted by referring to the missed sea-lift in Grise Fiord. Supplies had to be airlifted to that community at a tremendous cost.

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