WWF-Canada Blog:
Arctic


Russian Arctic Shipping Accident Surprisingly Close to Home

As our WWF colleagues in Russia call for tighter regulations for shipping in their Arctic Northern Sea Route, it’s a good time for a reality check on how Canadian and international regulations on Arctic shipping measure up.

The Canadian icebreaker ship Louis St. Laurent, breaking through the sea ice of the Canada Basin, Beaufort Sea, Alaska, United States.  © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

The Canadian icebreaker ship Louis St. Laurent, breaking through the sea ice of the Canada Basin, Beaufort Sea, Alaska, United States. © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

Interest in Russia was piqued last week when a tanker carrying diesel fuel hit ice, which punched a hole in its hull. Why and how did this happen?  As it turns out, the tanker didn’t have a permit to be in ice as thick as it encountered, and the required ice breaking vessel was nowhere in sight. The tanker is currently stable and waiting for emergency support, and thankfully, there has been no loss of life or fuel spilled.

The Russian accident comes at a time when the international maritime community is debating a new legal instrument, the Polar Code, to govern shipping in the Arctic. Progress has been slow with the negotiations and eventual implementation. Competing development and environmental protection agendas have contributed to a watered down and weak draft of the code.

It’s generally known within the international community that Canada has the most stringent rules governing shipping in Arctic waters. The Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act has a zero discharge pollution policy, the Arctic Ice Regime Shipping System categorizes vessels according to their ability to handle different ice conditions, and the Zone/Date System  defines opening and closing dates for entry and exit into the Canadian Arctic for various classes of ships. Combined with years of domestic operating experience, Canada sets a good example to the world for managing safety and environmental risk from the impacts of shipping in the Arctic.

The problem is that Canadian rules (and experience) don’t apply outside of our 200 nautical mile ocean exclusive economic zone.  They don’t apply to sensitive habitats in other jurisdictions of the global Arctic, or to ‘international straits’ (there is considerable debate on whether the Northwest Passage is an international waterway, and which rules apply there, Canadian or international).  So the majority of Arctic shipping traffic is not adhering to the best available regulations.

The current patchwork of regulations is made even more problematic given operating in the Arctic is particularly challenging and risky.  The environment is harsh, variable from year to year, remote with very little search and rescue capability, lacking in key port and navigational infrastructure, and, at least in the Canadian Arctic, largely uncharted or mapped to modern standards (charts for just 1% of the area meet these standards).

There’s a perfect Arctic storm brewing here, which we’ve only begun to realize. International shipping rules in the Arctic need to reflect Canadian standards to protect sensitive habitats globally and close to home. What today appears to be a Russian problem could very well wash up on Canadian shores soon if a strong, enforceable Polar Code isn’t adopted by the international community.