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Interview: Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO)

We spoke with Koji Sekimizu, Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization, about the Polar Code, the IMO and the Arctic Council…

Q: In your view, what are the main challenges of increased shipping in Arctic waters and how will the Polar Code help address these?

A: The receding sea ice in the Arctic Ocean provides an excellent opportunity for shorter sea passages – which means reduced costs. But it also takes shipping into an environment that is not only extremely harsh and challenging for ships to operate in, but which also lacks - or has limited - infrastructure for safe navigation on which safe and green shipping relies, including up‑to-date hydrographic charts, provision of navigational information, search and rescue, oil spill response and so on. The infrastructure challenges need to be addressed in order to ensure that support systems are in place for Arctic voyages.

IMO’s Polar Code aims to provide the regulations needed to safeguard shipping and protect the environment in such inhospitable conditions and therefore covers the full range of shipping-related matters relevant to navigation in waters surrounding the two poles – ship design, construction and equipment; operational and training concerns; search and rescue; and, equally important, the protection of the unique environment and ecosystems of the polar regions. Ships and crew must be fully prepared for Arctic and Antarctic voyages.

The Polar Code (safety elements) have now been adopted by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in 2014, and the environmental elements are expected to be adopted by the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), at its next session in May 2015, together with associated MARPOL amendments. The Polar Code is expected to enter into force on 1 January 2017 under the International convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).

However, the Polar Code alone does not and cannot address the infrastructure challenges.

With regards to charts, the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), which has worked closely with IMO in developing the Polar Code, has noted that systematic and complete hydrographic surveys have not been carried out in many polar areas due to their extensive, remote and inhospitable nature, while the presence of ice throughout much of the year limits the ability to conduct hydrographic surveys, although increasingly large unsurveyed areas may be becoming available for navigation due to the melting of glaciers and sea ice. The IHO has assessed that 95 per cent of the Antarctic region is unsurveyed and appropriate scale chart coverage is generally inadequate for coastal navigation, while the situation is similar in the Arctic region

The IHO has been working through the Arctic Regional Hydrographic Commission (ARHC) to improve the situation but it could take many years for a full range of adequate charts to be available.

In the meantime, I welcome the efforts of countries in the region to boost their efforts to carry out surveys, to work towards producing relevant charts and to provide aids to navigation, including the Russian Federation, via the Northern Sea Route Administration (established in 2013).

The communications infrastructure also presents a challenge. The expansion of the World-Wide Navigational Warning System (WWNWS) into Arctic waters was achieved in 2011 with full operational status in the five designated NAVAREAs areas established for the purposes of coordinating the broadcast of navigational warnings) and METAREAs (areas established for the purposes of coordinating the marine metrological information), with Canada, Norway and the Russian Federation assuming responsibility for coordinating the dissemination of maritime safety information, including weather warnings and other relevant maritime safety information. (The areas are: NAVAREA/METAREA XVII – Canada; NAVAREA/METAREA XVIII – Canada; NAVAREA/METAREA XIX – Norway; NAVAREA/METAREA XX- Russian Federation; NAVAREA/METAREA XXI – Russian Federation).

This was a significant step. However, the present Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) service provider (Inmarsat), recognized under the GMDSS, utilises geostationary satellites that cannot provide full coverage in the Polar regions, so high-frequency narrow-band direct printing has to be used as an alternative means of promulgation of maritime safety information.

In order to provide comprehensive coverage of GMDSS using polar orbiting satellites, the Iridium mobile satellite system is currently being evaluated for recognition under the GMDSS.

If an accident or oil spill were to occur in the Arctic then search and rescue facilities and oil spill preparedness of the States concerned would be highly tested. In this context, the Arctic Council has already prepared a multi-lateral agreement for providing SAR services in the Arctic region. Similar proposals are afoot for the Antarctic region.

Meanwhile, there is good cooperation among members of the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group (EPPR), which is addressing various aspects of prevention, preparedness and response to environmental emergencies in the Arctic. Further, in 2013 the Arctic states (who are also IMO Member States) signed the legally-binding Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution, Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, which will enhance response capacity in the region.

Arctic Council Members have also contributed to the development of IMO’s Guide on oil spill response in ice and snow conditions, which is expected to be finalized at the next session of its Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR 3), in 2016.

Voyage planning is one of the most important elements for successfully navigating in the Polar regions. To this end, it is perhaps time to consider extending the provisions of IMO resolution A.999(25) on IMO Guidelines on voyage planning for passenger ships operating in remote areas to all ships operating in the Polar Regions.

Ice breaker provision, such as that made available by the Russian Federation for merchant ships transiting the Northern Sea route, is another aspect of the crucial support system for Arctic voyages. The provision needs to be monitored to ensure it meets demand.

All the above are largely the responsibility of coastal States, but I see a role for IMO and the Arctic Council in terms of coordination and collaboration.

I have personally had the good fortune to experience both the Arctic and the Antarctic at first hand, which has reinforced for me how vital it is that regulators, governments, policymakers and administrators work together to create the conditions in which Polar development can be safe, environmentally sound and sustainable.

In 2013, I was lucky enough to experience the realities of navigation in the harsh, remote and environmentally-sensitive Arctic region when I undertook a 1,700-mile voyage from the Kara Sea to the East Siberian Sea aboard the nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy, as a guest of the Government of the Russian Federation. During the voyage, I was able to observe closely the operation of the vessel, communication systems, charts and other navigational aids, and to assess the development of the search and rescue coordination centres at Dikson in the Kara Sea and Pevek in the East Siberian Sea.

Q: Protection of the marine environment is an issue important to both the Arctic Council and the IMO. How will the Polar Code’s pollution prevention provisions help protect Arctic waters?

A: The Polar Code adds additional requirements to those already applicable to ships under relevant IMO treaties, in order to address the specific challenges ships face when trading in the harsh conditions of the two poles. This should help to prevent accidents, thereby minimizing any potential pollution damage.

Also, specific environmental provisions address operational discharges, to supplement the requirements already contained in MARPOL. As the Antarctic area is already established as a Special Area under MARPOL Annexes I and V, with stringent restrictions on discharges, the Polar Code aims to replicate many of those provisions in the Arctic area.

Part II of the Polar Code, which has been approved by the MEPC for adoption in May this year, includes mandatory provisions in chapters covering the following topics:

  • prevention of pollution by oil, including discharge restrictions prohibiting any discharge into the sea of oil or oily mixtures from any ship, as well as structural requirements including protective location of fuel-oil and cargo tanks;
  • control of pollution by noxious liquid substances in bulk, prohibiting any discharge into the sea of noxious liquid substances, or mixtures containing such substances;
  • prevention of pollution by sewage from ships, prohibiting the discharge of sewage except for comminuted and disinfected sewage under specific circumstances, including a specified distance from ice; and
  • prevention of pollution by garbage from ships, adding additional restrictions to the permitted discharges (under MARPOL Annex V, discharge of all garbage into the sea is prohibited, except as provided otherwise). Food wastes shall not be discharged onto the ice and discharge into the sea of comminuted and ground food wastes is only permitted under specific circumstances including at a not less than 12 nautical miles from the nearest land, ice-shelf or fast ice. Only certain cargo residues, classified as not harmful to the marine environment, can be discharged.

Q: How should the IMO and Arctic Council further enhance cooperation and collaboration to achieve safe and sustainable Arctic shipping in the coming years?

A: I would like to see further cooperation between the Arctic states – who are Member States of IMO in their own right - and the IMO in terms of supporting and coordinating the necessary infrastructure to ensure safe shipping in the region.

The coastal States have the largest burden of responsibility for providing infrastructure and support and there are already good examples of this. But if shipping in the Arctic expands significantly then the need for cooperation will increase, with the involvement of the coastal State but also the flag States whose ships will ultimately trade in and through the region. This is where IMO and the Arctic Council can play a supportive role, including providing the relevant forum for discussion of any further measures to support the implementation of the Polar Code.

The forthcoming International Conference on Safe and Sustainable Shipping in a Changing Arctic Environment (ShipArc 2015) which will be held at the World Maritime University (WMU) in Malmö, Sweden, from 25 to 27 August 2015, is a good example of how we can pursue working together to assess the challenges and work on them. The conference is being co‑organized and co-chaired by WMU, IMO and the Arctic Council. .

The conference aims to bring together relevant stakeholders, including those proposing resource development and shipping, those most likely impacted by Arctic shipping (for example, coastal communities) and those responsible for its sustainable management, to discuss a forward-looking regulatory, governance, research and capacity-building agenda that will define and assist in achieving safe and sustainable shipping in a changing Arctic environment.

This kind of conference is therefore a good example of ways in which we can build cooperation and collaboration.

All eight Arctic states are also Members of IMO and have contributed to the development of the Polar Code. I have no doubt that they will continue to play a part in the Organization’s work on matters of relevance to the region, including developing and strengthening maritime infrastructure, the provision of navigational charts, the maintaining of search and rescue facilities, ensuring a continued comprehensive network of icebreaker support and providing maritime safety information. These are amongst a number of issues which will all need to be addressed in parallel with the implementation of the polar code by the shipping community.