Shipping issues are heating up in Canada's western Arctic


Stephen Insley
 Director of Arctic Conservation


Arctic Indigenous partnerships



Venturing through the Northwest Passage has always captured the hearts of explorers.

- Submitted by Dr. Stephen Insley

Venturing through the Northwest Passage has always captured the hearts of explorers, and news of the Crystal Serenity- a massive 1700-passenger cruise ship complete with accompanying icebreaker – making its first voyage through this mysterious area this past summer was no exception. People appear to be scrambling to see the last of the sea ice and glimpse polar bears before they vanish, and they are paying dearly to do so. But it is not just cruise ships in the Arctic that are on the rise. The Serenity heralds the onset of a new era of Arctic shipping and with it a suite of environmental threats.
Now that the Serenity cruise is complete, how did it go? The short answer is that it appears to have gone reasonably well, at least in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, or ISR, an area of land and sea located at the western entrance of the Northwest Passage where I conduct much of my research. Company representatives came to the community of Ulukhaktok well in advance to consult and organize their visit. They involved locals and limited the number of people on shore at any one time so as not to overwhelm the Hamlet. The resulting economic infusion, although limited to the specific communities they visited, was significant. In my conversations with people, the reaction was cautiously positive: the cruise was a good thing, but only occasionally and only if the same level of organization, community involvement and consultation, and attention to environmental impacts existed. The questions going forward are whether it will be possible to ensure future cruise ships act as responsibly as the Serenity, and whether their numbers in the Northwest Passage can be limited.

Cruise ships, however, are not the most significant environmental shipping threat on the horizon. That concern is reserved for commercial through-shipping traffic in the form of freighters, and the passage of the Nordic Orion in 2013 indicates how soon this threat may become reality. In addition, and no longer an insignificant threat, are the large private yachts that are much less predictable, often inexperienced and cruising dangerous Arctic waters in increasing numbers. From all forms of shipping there are three main Arctic environmental issues: oil spills, noise impacts, and ships striking marine mammals.
The largest potential impact of those three issues is from oil spills. Many people do not realize that this threat is not only from transporting crude oil to a refining location or sales market, such as was the case with the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. Fuel is being transported increasingly to industrial operations such as mines via barge or tanker ship. Every freighter that will pass through the Northwest Passage will carry with it enough fuel to cause substantial and long lasting, if not permanent, environmental damage in the event of a spill. The Arctic is not only extreme in terms of the difficulty in dealing with a potential incident, there is currently little or no capacity to respond to one. Especially egregious with regard to through-shipping is that the communities that stand to suffer the most from any such incident gain very little from the threat that makes it likely.

Noise is a more complex issue where both direct and indirect impacts are important to consider. The Arctic is home to a number of animals that rely on underwater sounds to survive. It is also one of the quietest marine environments on the planet, and one of the few locations where natural background noise is not overwhelmed by noise from ships and other man-made sources. This quiet environment makes it easier for animals to find food, avoid predators, and locate a mate. Increased shipping traffic raises the underwater noise level, though, and can put all those things at risk. Although it may be impossible to completely eliminate this threat, some basic steps can be taken to reduce underwater noise. In particular, ships need to move more slowly through sensitive areas and also pay attention to equipment details such as the design and maintenance of ship engines and drive trains.

The third issue, of ships striking marine mammals, is direct and often lethal and so easier to understand than the impacts of noise. If there are enough ship strikes, the number of animal deaths in a population could cause a population decline, especially if numbers are not healthy or stable to begin with. As with noise, one of the best mitigation measures is to slow down in the presence of marine mammals, particularly large and slow moving ones like bowhead whales. Of course, altogether avoiding areas where such marine mammals are known to congregate and where strike occurrence probabilities are highest is the best solution whenever possible. Defining these areas is essential and a central aspect of my research in the Arctic. This is also an example of an area of where Traditional Environmental Knowledge and Western Science work well together.

These issues are currently being tackled by a host of Inuvialuit professionals and others. There is much to do. It is an “all hands” situation that spans borders, scientific disciplines, regulators, industry, and policy makers. Our job at WCS Canada – as a science-based conservation NGO – is to provide the best environmental information that we can to ensure best shipping practices in the Arctic. Solid and relevant environmental data is currently underway and it couldn’t happen too soon. The clock is ticking.

Taking it slow can help reduce impacts of Arctic shipping on whales

Taking it slow can help reduce impacts of Arctic shipping on whales

Significantly increased ship traffic is altering the submarine calm of one of the quietest places on Earth.