Ship captains, vessel owners fear the worst

Arctic ship disaster highly likely, experts say


HALIFAX – With ship traffic on the increase in Arctic waters, a major shipping disaster is now far more likely to take place off the coast of Nunavut, causing both loss of life and damage to the environment, Canadian shipping experts said last week in Halifax.

Concern over these kinds of potential catastrophes drew about 100 ship captains, ship owners and government officials to a conference in Halifax last week to improve planning for an Arctic shipping disaster.

A mock shipping emergency conducted during the meeting, organized by the Company of Master Mariners of Canada, revealed huge holes in emergency plans that could lead to the loss of life and serious environmental damage if a shipping emergency were to occur.

Participants in the exercise suggested many ways to improve planning for shipping emergencies in the Arctic, such as building more trust among all parties involved, setting out clear lines of communication, and improving contacts with local communities.

"The time of an incident is not the time to be making friends" was a statement repeated several times during the exercise.

But where were the "friends" from Nunavut?

Ed Zebedee, an emergency planning official from the Government of Nunavut, was supposed to participate in the emergency exercise, but cancelled only after the event was underway.

As a result, how Nunavut will act when the expected shipping emergency occurs off its coasts remains unclear.

As part of the emergency exercise, a panel of experts playing the roles of a captain, ship owner, insurer and various officials practiced what they would do if the Polar Star, a ship with 150 passengers and crew, were to hit an underwater object and started taking water off Devon Island.

As time passed, due to crew error, they saw the ship's situation deteriorate rapidly, with more water entering the ship while fuel spilled from a hole in its hull.

Only five hours after the collision, the captain had to decide whether to beach his listing ship, make for a port or muster passengers for a lifeboat evacuation.

Rescue and pollution-fighting gear would need up to 24 hours to arrive on the scene, officials said.

And then what? How would 150 people, some suffering from serious injuries and hypothermia, be evacuated from such a remote location? What would happen to the damaged ship and the fuel spilled into the water and on the ice?

No one had the answers to these logistical problems, which would be even harder to solve if a shipping emergency actually occurred.

During the simulated emergency exercise, panelists were able to speak directly to each other around a table.

In a real emergency situation, the captain, ship owner and officials would be separated by thousands of kilometres, without a set plan to guide communications and decisions.

And if this sounds like a tragedy in the making, maritime emergencies can be much worse, said Martin Karlsen, whose company Karlsen Shipping owns the real-life Polar Star (which has never been involved in an actual emergency).

Karlsen cited the sinking of the cruise ship, Explorer, off Antarctica in November 2007. The Explorer was carrying 154 passengers and crew when, due to the inexperience of its captain, the ship hit a wall of ice and sunk within hours, forcing all crew and passengers into open lifeboats.

Human error lies behind most shipping emergencies, particularly in waters where experience in ice navigation is essential, Karlsen said.

The solution is for ships in the Arctic to have more experienced crews, better high-tech equipment and more information about ice conditions and underwater hazards, he suggested.

More government regulations, which are difficult to enforce, won't work, he said.

However, Canada plans to adopt stricter regulations as part of its planning for Arctic shipping emergencies, federal government officials at the conference said.

These measures include increasing Canada's jurisdiction over its Arctic waters and improving communities' capacity to clean-up pollution-causing incidents like fuel or oil spills.

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