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Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials Patrick Borbey on sustainable Arctic shipping

29 April 2014
In March 2014, Patrick Borbey, Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials, spoke in London at a Conference on Sustainable Arctic Shipping and Marine Operations. In a brief interview, Mr. Borbey spoke about the collaborative work of the Arctic states and associated issues of marine safety, infrastructure and tourism, including the work of PAME’s Arctic Marine Tourism project.

In March 2014, Patrick Borbey, Chair of the Arctic Council's Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) spoke in London at a Conference on Sustainable Arctic Shipping and Marine Operations organized and supported by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, the Embassy of Sweden in London and the Nordic Council of Ministers. In an interview, Mr. Borbey spoke about associated issues of marine safety, infrastructure, and tourism, including the work of Arctic Council Working Group PAME on the Arctic Marine Tourism project. He emphasized the collaborative work of the Arctic states, not only carried out within the Arctic Council, but also within the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on the Polar Code.


Could you talk a little bit about Canada’s experience with Arctic shipping?

Many people talk about shipping through the Northwest Passage or the Northern Sea Route, but in Canada there hasn’t been a huge amount of experience in that area. Of the shipping that has taken place, some has been quite symbolic, like the journey of the Manhattan - an American oil tanker - in 1969. Even in that instance, the Manhattan – which was refitted to be an icebreaking tanker – ran into difficulties along the way and was broken out by two Canadian icebreakers, the CCGS John A. MacDonald and the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent. Two US icebreakers also assisted during the voyage: the USCGC Staten Island and USCGC Northwind.

Shortly after the voyage of the Manhattan, the Parliament of Canada adopted the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act. It’s been slightly amended over the years, but to this day that remains the regime for the Northwest Passage. It’s very thorough.

Up until now, most Arctic shipping has involved icebreakers, government vessels, research vessels, or destinational shipping. Areas of new growth are one place for us to focus, for now. For example, cruise ships are now going into areas where they have not been before, and we need to ensure that that is done safely, with regard for passengers and crew, the environment and local communities. On transit shipping, I believe this is going to be limited over the next few years; we will need to focus on destinational shipping instead.

Looking at it from a Canadian perspective rather than from the Arctic Council, we have an interest in ensuring that the high standards that apply in the Canadian Arctic are reflected in the new polar code. Our standards include several important aspects that help us minimize the risk of incidents.

What kinds of unique value can Canada add in terms of developing sustainable Arctic shipping?

There are a number of unique things we do in Canada. For instance, the environmental impact assessment for any major resource development project in Canada must address maritime operations as well. In addition, we are working to protect some extremely rich marine ecosystems, such as Lancaster Sound. Marine traffic in some of these ecosystems could grow, and we’re working to ensure that we avoid as much impact as possible. We’re also focused on ensuring that any development that happens takes into account the fisheries sector, which is an important expanding industry in Nunavut, for example.

Are there any elements of infrastructure development that are of particular interest in Canada?

Infrastructure gaps are one issue that we’re working to address. Through the Arctic Council’s Arctic Maritime and Aviation Transportation Infrastructure Initiative (AMATII), we were able to catalog the infrastructure that does exist across the Arctic. It’s the first time such an inventory – including icebreaking capacity – has been done.

In Canada we recognize that we don’t have a lot of the infrastructure that might be required for more sustained increases in shipping, including stations to deal with discharge along the way, greater icebreaking capacity, and ports that are suitable to larger vessels. That’s an area we’ll have to examine carefully.

How about collaborative work with other Arctic states towards sustainable shipping?

We’re working hard to harmonize our positions where possible for our work within the IMO. That’s a good example of how the Arctic Council can be effective outside the boundaries of the Council itself. The cruise ship guidelines coming from PAME will also help to fill a vacuum that exists right now. Those will be really important; you know, I was on a cruise ship with students this summer myself, and the closest icebreaker to us was two days’ sail away, if there had been an incident. The captain and his crew were well-trained in that case, but with 200 people on board, you want to make really sure you know what you’re doing. Even if you have a set plan, you need to be able to be flexible and adaptable.

We are having our first workshop on sustainable cruise ship operations in Ottawa this spring, and that’s important because the industry is evolving. The industry also wants to help fill these infrastructure gaps. I was talking with one gentleman who heads an Alaska-based cruise ship operator, and he said to me that he’d be happy to carry charting/bathymetry equipment on their boats, and provide the data back to the government, to help with charting. The key gaps that exist don’t need to be addressed by governments alone; they can also be tackled in collaboration with people who are already operating – hopefully, operating safely – in the region.