Nunavut officials press for Arctic search and rescue base
'If we have a major incident up here, we are in a very bad position to be able to respond.'
Nunavut's fishing industry is renewing its call for a search and rescue base in the North after two recent major incidents where fishing vessels were in distress in Arctic waters for hours before help arrived.
"Within the last six months we've had two near disasters," said Jerry Ward, chair of the Nunavut Offshore Allocation Holders Association.
Last September, the Atlantic Charger fishing vessel took on water near the mouth of Frobisher Bay. The nine-person crew was rescued by a Danish ship.
Then last month, the F/V Saputi ran into ice and took on water. Hercules aircraft from Nova Scotia dropped pumps as the Danish Navy escorted the damaged ship and crew of 30 to Nuuk, Greenland.
The Danish Navy had to be called in for help because it would have taken the Canadian Coast Guard about two days to reach the ship, according to Ward.
"In the first case last fall, I think it took about 10 to 11 hours to get search and rescue facilities in the area," said Ward.
"In the second case they certainly reacted very quickly but the aircraft had to come all the way from Halifax to deliver the pumps. At some point it's realistic to assume that there could be a loss of life."
Can coast guard auxiliaries fill the gap?
"The North is so vast and huge it's impossible to have stations everywhere," said Hunter Tootoo, Nunavut MP and the minister in charge of the Canadian Coast Guard.
"The best way is to utilize the resources that are on the ground and that's the people that are out there, so we can work with the Government of Nunavut and the communities to identify people and train people."
Tootoo pointed to the creation of 12 new coast guard auxiliaries in Nunavut and Nunavik as one possible solution.
Ed Zebedee, Nunavut's director of Protection Services, said coast guard auxiliaries would not be of much help in search and rescues of large offshore vessels.
"They [the auxiliaries] are looking more at the hunters and fishers that are along the shorelines that get into trouble," said Zebedee.
"If you have a large fishing vessel that gets into trouble or a cargo vessel, they have no capability. They'll go out and they'll do what they can, but they really are not the resource that's needed in that situation."
Zebedee said the expansion of the fishing industry in the Arctic and the melting of sea ice point to the growing need for a search and rescue base in the North capable of responding to distress calls from medium to large vessels.
"We are seeing more and more incidents. Our number of searches grows annually and the availability of specialized aircraft to be able to assist is very limited here," said Zebedee.
Last year there were more than 250 searches in Nunavut, he said.
"I think our worst day we had eight searches that we were co-ordinating at the one time."
Zebedee said the territory is not equipped to handle this workload and has advocated stationing search and rescue helicopters in the North during the peak shipping season.
The Crystal Serenity, a "luxury" cruise ship with a capacity of more than 1,000 passengers, is planning to sail all the way through the Northwest Passage in August. Zebedee said it has plans in the works to return again in 2017.
"If we have a major incident up here, we are in a very bad position to be able to respond," he said.
But Zebedee is not optimistic about a search and rescue base being established in the North in the near future because of its high cost and the relatively low population in the region.
Tootoo said he has asked his officials to do another review of search and rescue in the North to look at different options.