New report illustrates increase in Arctic shipping

Arctic Council study shows rise in vessel traffic from 2013 to 2019

The western Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay sees yachts, cruise ships and cargo vessels trying to transit the Northwest Passage each summer. A report published by the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment working group showed a 25 per cent increase in ship traffic across the Arctic since 2013. (Photo by Jane George)

By Elaine Anselmi

The Arctic Council’s working group on marine environment protection has released its first report looking at the growth in Arctic shipping in nearly two decades.

Released on March 12, the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) group looked specifically at changes in vessel traffic and type from 2013 to 2019.

For the purpose of its first Arctic Shipping Status Report, PAME used the Polar Code’s definition of the Arctic, which includes everything above 60 degrees north in most of the west, but dips south to 58 degrees to encircle Greenland.

The report shows a 25 per cent increase in ship visits from 2013 to 2019.

The study counts unique visits, so a ship that visited multiple times in one year would only be counted once.

In 2013, 1,298 unique ships entered the Arctic, according to the report, based on information from the Arctic Ship Traffic Data System. By 2019, the number of unique ships in the Arctic grew to 1,628.

The report also shows that many of the ships that entered the Arctic in 2019—41 per cent, or 671 of these—were fishing vessels.

That was followed by ships classified as “other,” such as research vessels and ice breakers. The next most common ships were general cargo ships and bulk carriers.

There were 73 different cruise ships in Arctic waters in 2019, which is more than the number of oil or gas tankers, or container ships.

The report also showed that ships are now sailing 75 per cent longer distances than they previously were. Again, fishing vessels saw the greatest increase in nautical miles travelled.

All of this, the report notes, coincides with the decline in sea ice across the Arctic.

While the sea ice extent in September 1999 stretched across 6.1 million square kilometres, it had shrunk to 4.3 million square kilometres in the same month in 2019.

The record for minimum September sea ice extent during this period was in 2012.

One example of a big increase in shipping took place in Baffin Bay.

In 2013, the report shows, shipping in the area was relatively low. The following year, Baffinland’s Mary River mine opened.

These maps show the increase in shipping tracks in Baffin Bay, in orange, from before and after the Mary River mine began operation on north Baffin Island. (Screenshot from Arctic Shipping Status Report, PAME)

The project began with the shipping of up to 4.2 million tonnes of iron ore from the mine’s Milne Inlet port, which has grown to 6 million tonnes by 2018 and will continue at that level through 2021.

Baffinland is currently seeking regulators’ permission to expand its Mary River operations. The company’s phase-two expansion plans would double the mine’s production.

Those discussions will continue through technical meetings, which have been postponed due to the current coronavirus pandemic.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada has been vocal on the issue of safety and environmental protection for Arctic shipping.

“Modern day remote Arctic communities depend on markets in the south for many of our goods. With this comes the need for safe and economically sound shipping and transportation routes to move people and goods to and from this region, which is becoming more accessible, as ice recedes,” reads a Feb. 25 news release from the organization.

“ICC’s position is clear, we must take measures to ensure safe Arctic shipping in a manner which does not further burden remote Inuit communities.”

These considerations include the creation of safe shipping corridors and spill-response plans, as well as restrictions on ballast discharges, underwater noise and emissions.

The ICC and its Canadian arm have pushed for a full ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters, without exemptions. Most recently this call was made at a meeting of the International Maritime Organization in London, England, in February.

“We are pleased that [the Government of] Canada announced its support for the ban in the days leading up to this meeting, bringing the number of Arctic states in favour of a ban to seven out of eight,” said Lisa Koperqualuk, vice-president, international affairs, of ICC—Canada.

“We are living in an age of transformation in the Arctic and we must not hold Indigenous communities hostage by threatening increased costs. We are simply taking action to safeguard our Arctic marine waters, animals and environment—each are interrelated to the many dimensions of who we are as distinct peoples.”

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(2) Comments:

  1. Posted by The Old Trapper on

    The Canadian Navy needs to do more to protect the Canadian Arctic from unauthorized vessels. Really we need to have tight controls, there should be a line drawn on the map where permission must be obtained from the Canadian government before a ship may proceed.
    And I include the U.S. in needing to obtain permission. I know that some in their government don’t recognize some of Canada’s claims. Just because you have a bigger army, navy, or air force does not mean that you are right, no matter what their “Dear Leader” may think.

  2. Posted by Putuguk on

    A 2014 report from the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators showed that 35 different agencies in Canada require a total of 55 licences and permits for a Cruise ship to undertake a Northwest Passage transit.

    The majority of the licences and permits cited would also be required of other commercial shippers. This list also does not include being in general compliance with things like the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, the Canada Shipping Act, the Marine Liability Act, the Marine Transportation Security Act, and the Coasting Trade Act. Plus, specific licences for commercial fishers.

    That is a staggering amount of existing regulatory oversight that requires administrators, managers. inspectors, policy and legislation support, and field staff in order to have in place. There could very well be one bureaucrat for each of the 1,628 unique vessels that entered Arctic waters.

    And still, the ICC points to the need for more regulation of really basic things like navigation and pollution control. Assuming the ICC concerns are valid (which I am quite willing to accept), it begs the question – how useless are all these inspectors, laws, regulations, and guidelines from these 35 separate Canadian agencies with their 55 licences and permits?

    We have had much of this regulatory framework in place before the open water seasons increased up here. The recent increase in ship traffic may not be the real problem. Perhaps what we really face is an ineffective and incompetent regulatory system.

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