Oceans North Canada calls for Inuit input on Canada's Arctic shipping corridors

A new report from Oceans North Canada is calling on the federal government to re-work its Arctic shipping corridors initiative to include environmental protections and engagement with Inuit groups.

Melting sea ice, climate change opening doors to new shipping lanes and longer seasons

A new report from Oceans North Canada is calling on the federal government to re-work its Arctic shipping corridors initiative to include environmental protections and engagement with Inuit groups. (Submitted by Kim Ploughman)

A new report from Oceans North Canada is calling on the federal government to re-work its Arctic shipping corridors initiative to include environmental protections and engagement with Inuit groups.

The non-governmental organization promoting the conservation of Canada's Arctic waters says the government had big gaps in the data it used to create the Northern Marine Transportation Corridors Initiative.

Oceans North Canada's 37-page report outlines several key recommendations, including the need for a new management structure to govern the areas in the corridors initiative. The organization (which is a program of The Pew Charitable Trusts) wants to see the creation of a commission that would be co-chaired by the Coast Guard and Inuit beneficiaries.

"The Coast Guard has put in a solid foundation, but a foundation is not an end point, that's a beginning point," said Louie Porta, a consultant with Oceans North Canada, and one of the authors of the study. 

"So we wanted to take that foundation, and illustrate how one could build a complete and mature Arctic-specific shipping policy for this country."

In 2014, the Coast Guard, the Canadian Hydrographic Service and Transport Canada led an initiative to pinpoint specific shipping routes throughout the Arctic, where they would prioritize services like hydrography, navigational aids, ice breaking and patrolling. Officially, they called it the Northern Marine Transportation Corridors Initiative (NMTCI).

While these corridors would be voluntary shipping routes for vessels, the idea was to create incentive for them to travel down specific corridors in an effort to improve safety in Arctic shipping, which has more than doubled in traffic in the last 10 years.

The problem, according to Oceans North Canada, is the federal government only used data on traffic, the probability of ships running aground, access to mitigation measures and navigational aids, and depth, length and width of the corridors. 

Porta says that's not enough data to create a long-term policy for Arctic shipping, which is expected to boom by 2020 as temperatures warm up, opening up lanes and extending the shipping season. Environmental data along with consultation with Inuit groups must be factored in, he said.

Oceans North Canada data from a 2016 report on the Northern Marine Transportation Corridors, illustrating how known shipping routes intersect with wildlife areas (Oceans North)

"Any sustainable policies for the North must not just include economics, but simultaneously, a respect for the unique marine environment, maintain the biological abundance of the North, and respect and include Inuit at all phases of decision-making," Porta said.

He said what sets this report aside from other reports on Arctic shipping is their call for governance, rather than just listing areas that require attention.

"Vessels, marine mammals, birds, fish and humans all rely on the same key Arctic passages to get where they're going," Porta said. 

"So what we've tried to do is highlight [that] an Arctic shipping policy for this country must be dynamic enough to recognize that there needs to be multiple uses, sustainably governed, at the same time in the same places."

Oceans North Canada also points to the specific corridors outlined in the Beaufort Sea. It highlights how the Coast Guard's current corridors covers 77,500 square kilometres and affects 45 per cent of "regional ecological, biological and Inuit areas of significance."

The group's proposed framework would reduce the area covered by 70 per cent, and only affect 20 per cent of those significant areas.

Consultations already underway

For its part, the federal government says it has already begun engaging stakeholders to re-prioritize its existing corridors, set out in the NMTCI. It wants to identify how the initiative should be re-worked based on local community needs and environmental concerns.

"At the end of the day, this is about enhancing services to Northern communities and making sure Canada is prepared for international traffic through the Northwest Passage," said Neil O'Rourke, the director of integrated logistic support for the Canadian Coast Guard.

"We want to make sure we minimize any disruption to those communities and their established ways of life, and we want to make sure we minimize any disruption to the environment."

A map illustrates the Coast Guard's preliminary corridors. These areas are shipping routes the Coast Guard has identified where it will prioritize services. (Canadian Coast Guard)

Transport Canada wrapped up its first round of consultations last week. Over the past month officials have travelled to Iqaluit, Yellowknife, Montreal, Ottawa and St. John's to hold engagement sessions with various stakeholders. Those included provincial and territorial governments, indigenous groups and industry representatives, among others, although it's unclear who specifically took part in those discussions.

The Northern Marine Transportation Corridors Initiative was recently reinforced by the joint statement signed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama in March, which committed to ensuring any new shipping corridors through the Arctic are "low impact."

Shipping traffic expected to double by 2020

According to a fall 2014 report by the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, there were 350 voyages in 2013. At the time, Environment Canada estimated that in the eastern Arctic alone traffic levels could rise by 300 new voyages per year by 2020 because of mining and development projects.

The audit itself focused on whether the government – specifically the Coast Guard, Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Environment Canada – "adequately support[ed] safe marine navigation in Canadian Arctic waters," adding that it was critical for preventing spills.

Ultimately, it found the Arctic was inadequately surveyed and charted, and made a number of recommendations including prioritizing hydrographic surveying and charting efforts, reviewing navigational aid systems and replacing them if necessary, and developing a long-term plan for safe shipping in the Arctic.

The government departments agreed with all the recommendations and had actually already started on the Northern Marine Transportation Corridors Initiative by the time the report came out. By then, the Coast Guard's data showed 77 per cent of traffic from 2011 to 2013 was already within five nautical miles (about nine kilometres) from the corridors it had preliminary identified as part of the corridors initiative.

International implications

The corridors initiative could have international implications down the road.

At a workshop in Vancouver in December, hosted by the Coast Guard, the University of Ottawa and Oceans North Canada, participants weighed in on how implementing the plan could lead to more voyages by foreign vessels.

Participants at the workshop highlighted the need to look at what would happen if foreign vessels choose not to follow the outlined corridors, given that the corridors are voluntary, and that the Coast Guard has identified the Canadian Arctic Archipelago as internal waters and not international.


Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He got his start with CBC in Fredericton after graduating from St. Thomas University's journalism program. He's also worked two Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.