This article originally appeared in The Circle, WWF’s quarterly Arctic journal, issue 01.16. See all articles here. Previous issues of The Circle can be downloaded here.
Melting sea ice is reviving the centuries-old dream of an Arctic “silk route” connecting European or North American ports to Asia. With navigating the Arctic becoming a reality, MARIA DELIGIANNI says European shipowners need more investments in infrastructure and technology. Deligianni is a Policy Advisor on Maritime Safety, Environment and Offshore at European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA).
PRECAUTIONS NEED to be taken to ensure safety of life at sea and the sustainability of these highly sensitive environments is not compromised. While the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) remains the primary regulator for the shipping industry, the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) endorses the actions taken by the European Union towards the development of a policy on Arctic issues, especially in increasing knowledge of the region and investing in research and development. The Polar Code was intensely debated by the IMO for more than four years before adoption in 2014 by its Maritime Safety Committee (MSC). From the beginning European shipowners underscored that a mandatory and uniform regulatory framework is a prerequisite to ensure maritime safety and environmental protection, as polar shipping grows in volume and diversifies in the coming years. This is the single, most expeditious solution to achieve coordination and harmonisation of national legislation.
As European Shipowners, we support that the risk-based approach followed by the Polar Code will indeed boost the level of confidence in the safety and environmental performance of shipping. As of 2017, we are set to comply with IMO requirements by carrying onboard the Polar Ship Certificate stating the adequacy of the vessel to navigate in the region and the Polar Water Operational Manual – an essential tool in evaluating the anticipated range of operating conditions and hazards to ensure the decision-making process onboard is adjusted accordingly.
The Code has been criticized for a number of omissions on issues such as heavy fuel oil use by vessels, the lack of invasive species’ protections and sufficient oil spill response requirements. We consider the Polar Code to be the first decisive step by the IMO at this stage. The importance of the Code is its mandatory nature that ensures a level playing field. However, we acknowledge that more needs to be done and anticipate amendments will follow to strengthen the current provisions.
It is unrealistic to believe that the Arctic will be immediately accessible as sea ice disappears. Firstly, an ice-free Arctic Ocean year-round is false, as sea ice will always re-form during winter and ice properties and coverage will vary greatly within the region. There are also many other challenges that shipowners encounter such as polar darkness, poor charts, lack of critical infrastructure and navigation control systems, low search-and-rescue capability, and other non-climatic factors.
Therefore, development of the appropriate regulatory framework should be accompanied by reinforced infrastructure and technology. Other critical investments include: improved navigation aids; accuracy of nautical charts; weather forecasts; monitoring of drifting ice and icing conditions as well as search and rescue infrastructure for defined incident scenarios. These are just some of the critical factors that need to be addressed in a region in which extreme weather events are routine occurrences.
Maintaining a positive reputation for operators, as the area is increasingly exploited, is also a challenge. Maritime transport and energy extraction depend on both local and global acceptance of increased industrial activity in the Arctic. Investment in relationships is imperative for local and global acceptance of increasing industrial activities in the Arctic. This confidence can be built through investments in ice research, forecasting and communications to ensure operational risks can be properly assessed and mitigated. A broad focus on knowledge and research is also crucial for increasing activities in the Arctic.
As demonstrated by the successful development of the Polar Code, IMO is the appropriate forum for developing standards for ships operating in the Arctic. It has the necessary legal and technical expertise to take full account of the interests of all maritime nations, including those with an Arctic coastline.
Discussions on an EU Policy on arctic issues are also gaining momentum. In principle, we endorse the three pillars identified by the 2012 Joint Communication Commission and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy: support research and channel knowledge; act with responsibility; and intensify the constructive engagement and dialogue with Arctic States. We also acknowledge EU’s actions in becoming one of the key investors in the region by exploring further investment and research priorities.
The EU could play a prominent role in addressing some of these challenges through the development of satellite communication and tracking and monitoring systems to ensure safe navigation and enable search and rescue (SAR) operations. This could take place through Galileo and Copernicus, the global navigation satellite system which provides a highly accurate, global positioning service.
In addition, a highly-developed infrastructure of geographical information through the creation of a digital atlas of the Arctic should be established. Compiling geographical information and obtaining a complete picture of what is happening at a given location (maps, charts, records, etc.) is also crucial. This data should be collected, maintained and made available in the most effective manner, perhaps through the Arctic Information Center the European Commission is considering.
The EU could also develop a platform to pool data on the state of the seas in and around Europe and high-resolution sea-bed mapping. This would further assist in establishing safe transport routes in Arctic waters.
Last but not least, it is clear that future initiatives in the Arctic will necessitate an increase in maritime training capacity. Specialised courses focusing on High North/Arctic operations should be enhanced to offer relevant and qualified manpower in the offshore and maritime domain. Improved competence requirements and standards will ensure there is knowledge and understanding of Arctic conditions. The EU could play a prominent role in developing these programmes.
Shipping activities in the Arctic must take place within the framework of uniform regulatory framework and adequate infrastructure that ensures quality shipping among all operators in the region. Any maritime accident in the vulnerable Arctic is an accident that affects us all.