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Nunavut board waives environmental review for cruise ship Crystal Serenity

The Nunavut Impact Review Board is recommending the federal government approve a plan to bring a luxury cruise ship through Nunavut waters without a full environmental review, which has one Arctic researcher on edge.

NIRB says Crystal Serenity 'unlikely to result in significant adverse environmental and social impacts'

The Crystal Serenity is scheduled to arrive in Cambridge Bay Aug. 29, and Pond Inlet Sept. 5 (The Canadian Press)

The Nunavut Impact Review Board is recommending the federal government approve a plan to bring a luxury vessel through the Northwest Passage without a full environmental review, which has one Arctic researcher on edge.

Earlier this year, Crystal Cruises submitted an application to the NIRB for the Crystal Serenity voyage, which is scheduled to arrive in Cambridge Bay Aug. 29 and Pond Inlet Sept. 5, and for a similar voyage in 2017.

The 253-metre vessel is on its way to becoming the largest ship ever to navigate the Northwest Passage. It will carry more than 1,000 passengers and 600 crew.

But according to a 29-page screening decision released Aug. 23, the NIRB says the project "is unlikely to result in significant adverse environmental and social impacts."

NIRB says concerns can be mitigated

The NIRB's written decision outlines some of the concerns the board received during the public feedback period of the application review.

For example, the Government of Nunavut's Department of Environment noted that "polar bears are a designated species of special concern," and recommended the cruise ship operator adhere to a number of requirements including staying "clear of any swimming polar bears and under no circumstance" approaching them.

Canada's Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs "reminded the [operator] that sea ice is an important component of the Arctic marine environment, is used by local communities for traditional activities, and is an important wildlife habitat."

INAC also "requested that the [operator] more clearly illustrate how waste and wastewater would be treated and disposed of."

But the NIRB says those concerns, as well as others, can be mitigated, and lays out 32 terms and conditions it's recommending the company follow.

Those conditions range from limiting the amount of time passengers can view marine mammals to ensuring "that all personnel are properly trained in fuel and hazardous waste [and spill] handling procedures."

A dangerous precedent

The NIRB's decision — released less than a week before the Crystal Serenity is scheduled to enter Nunavut waters — is raising questions for at least one Arctic researcher.

'My question is whether the board has considered the impact of all of the future voyages of large cruise ships that are likely to follow this one,' says Byers (Submitted by Michael Byers)

"My question is whether the board has considered the impact of all of the future voyages of large cruise ships that are likely to follow this one," says Michael Byers, international affairs professor at the University of British Columbia.

"When I think about the prospect of dozens of large cruise ships sailing through the Canadian Arctic each summer, I worry. I worry about the impact of a possible oil spill. I worry about the impact of ship noise on marine mammals like whales and walrus."

Byers says he's also worried about how large-scale cruise ship tourism will impact the communities visited along the way.

"The strain upon local government. The strain upon local services. And in many cases, without all that much in terms of economic benefit.

"These cruise ship customers are housed on the ship, they're not actually staying in the community and therefore don't actually leave all that much money behind."

Byers acknowledges that — regardless of his views — the voyage is going ahead, and says he hopes it will "serve as a catalyst for serious policy analysis addressing some of the risks that will come from many more ships in the future."

The NIRB is currently waiting for the federal government to respond to its decision.

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