Credit: Kystverket / Rune Bergstrøm
Credit: Kystverket / Rune Bergstrøm
A collaborative project with the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators explored the potential role of cruise vessels as first responders in oil spill events

Cruise vessels operating in Arctic waters are usually regarded as a risk factor. Operating far from densely populated areas and a close-knit search and rescue network, any emergency in the high North could quickly turn catastrophic. But could there be another side to that narrative?

The Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group (EPPR) teamed up with the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) for the joint NEPTUNE project to investigate how cruise vessels could turn into a resource for oil spill emergency operations in the Arctic.

“They are where local authorities are not, and that’s their potential strength. An expedition cruise vessel may be the nearest body to respond in case of an oil spill in the Arctic,” says Synnøve Lunde from the Norwegian Coastal Administration.

Synnøve Lunde and her colleagues from the U.S. Coast Guard and AECO reached out to oil spill authorities and responders in the Arctic States and Arctic cruise operators to find out if they saw a role for cruise vessels in responding to oil spill events.

“The cruise operators clearly identified themselves as an asset in expanding oil spill response capacities in the North. In addition to zodiacs, cranes and satellite communications systems, they carry mandatory oil spill equipment on board and as experienced seafarers they are practical problem solvers,” says Frigg Jørgensen, AECO Executive Director.

Authorities were more restrained in their responses. While tour operators could potentially assist in an emergency, it would not be possible to rely on their services. Limited storage both for additional equipment and oily waste presents a limiting factor, as does the seasonal nature of their operations. Most cruise vessels head South after the summer months.

Another concern was the limited training of a cruise vessels’ crew – something NEPTUNE had planned to address. The original plan was to conduct a pilot oil spill response exercise on board an expedition cruise vessel and to develop recommendations for future exercises from it. But the global Covid-19 pandemic put a sudden halt to the preparations.

Instead, the project team hosted table-top exercises with crew and staff of two tour operator companies: Hurtigruten and Lindblad Expeditions. They were given a scenario, in which a fishing vessel had grounded in the North of Svalbard with 750 cubic meters of marine diesel on board. Due to bad weather conditions, it was impossible to get assistance from Longyearbyen. Their expedition cruise vessel was the only one close by.

In their dry run, the operators discussed notification and communications systems, went through their equipment and capabilities, reviewed their emergency plans and gauged their supplies. For twenty-four hours, at most forty-eight hours, the crew would’ve been able to provide assistance. Then their own resources would be depleted.

“These first twenty-four to forty-eight hours can be vital if a cruise vessel is able to act as first responder. In these emergencies, getting accurate information about an incident and initiating early response actions is critical for authorities until they can bring in additional resources,” says Jason Scott from the United States Coast Guard.

The cruise industry is keen on further exploring its role within an Arctic oil spill response system and the project leads are optimistic that NEPTUNE has only just scratched the surface of cooperation possibilities. How a systematic approach could look and which agreements would have to put in place are thus important questions for a potential follow-up to this project.