Shippers warn coast guard cuts could endanger Arctic sea-lift

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

DWANE WILKIN

Sea-lift service in northern communities will deteriorate if the Coast Guard retires yet another icebreaker from Arctic waters, private shippers warned this week.

The Coast Guard has proposed to eliminate its lone icebreaker in the western Arctic as part of an overall cost-cutting strategy that began last year.

Under the original proposal, released during a meeting of the Canadian Marine Advisory Council in Edmonton, the Coast Guard announced last fall it would provide ice-breaking services to the West by freeing up one of the remaining five vessels in the eastern Arctic on an as-needed basis.

Not fast enough?

Shippers say that isn’t good enough.

“The first concern is that in the western region we do not feel that providing an icebreaker on an as-required basis will work, simply because of the time it will take to dispatch a ship from the East to the West,” Cameron Clement, CEO of Northern Transportation Company Ltd. said earlier this week.

Clement, who heads up a newly-formed Arctic Marine Advisory Board, will meet with other shipping company representatives in Iqaluit on Feb. 4 to lobby the Coast Guard to reconsider the proposal.

The planned reductions are designed to meet federal budget targets. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has directed the Coast Guard to lighten it’s operating budget by about 30 per cent over the next three years.

Sea lift at risk?

But Clement said any further reduction in ice-breaking services puts the sea-lift at great risk.

“This sea-lift contains all of their fuel, all of their groceries, all of the things they’ll need to survive for a year­if that is not achieved, it’s the communities that will suffer by this decision,” said Clement.

“And it’ll be a costly decision, because all of a sudden they’ll have to fly everything in from God knows where.”

Last season the Coast Guard reduced its ice-breaking fleet in the Arctic by one ship, servicing the North with a total of five vessels, including a multi-purpose ship named the Sir Wilfred Laurier sailing from Victoria, B.C. dedicated to service in the West.

Without the Sir Wilfred Laurier and additional help from the eastern-Arctic based Louis St. Laurent last year, for instance, NCTL believes stubborn pack ice would have prevented the sea-lift to Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak.

Jim Quinn, regional director for Coast Guard in the Central and Arctic regions, said he is working with the advisory board to come to a satisfactory solution.

Search for solutions

He acknowledged that the proposed reduction of the western vessel is “not good enough and that we need to look at the available options to ensure that we have a service delivery mechanism for the western Arctic.

“That’s something we’ll deal with in February’s meeting.”

Quinn said the advisory board, made up of commercial shippers and community representatives, will have to work closely together to better manage transportation in the North. Reductions in the Coast Guard’s radio and navigational services are also planned.

Clement said NCTL plans to release its own study of the Coast Guard’s activities in the North to illustrate the importance of ice breaking and other Arctic marine services to northern communities.

Icebreakers and ice-breaking vessels carry out a number of functions. In addition to managing the sea-lift, the Coast Guard also supports various companies by escorting commercial vessels to and from northern waters.

Clement said the shippers already plan to escalate their lobby to include an appeal to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

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