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An evaluation of the impact of shipping on Arctic Indigenous Peoples

June 27, 2019


John Downing

Waterways throughout the Arctic region are experiencing unprecedented ice melt due to climate change. These openings in sea ice are enabling increased commercial maritime activities, including shipping, and extraction of natural resources, such as oil and minerals. How will these shipping operations affect the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples? Increasing vessel activity has set in motion a need for enhanced maritime services, including the ability to conduct search and rescue (SAR) as well as oil spill cleanup resources in the event of a casualty and subsequent spill. These operations also are increasing demand for other vessel services, particularly for resource extraction operations. Yet, there exists some opportunity for positive growth, as well.  This paper will briefly highlight current maritime policies and outline contemporary maritime SAR and oil spill cleanup capabilities throughout the Arctic. It will answer whether pending commercial transits, which will require increasing emergency support from the shore for maritime casualties such as injuries, engine malfunctions, and oil or chemical spills, are a growth opportunity or an affront to the traditional livelihoods, including communities and subsistence of those who live throughout the Arctic.

Indigenous communities, whose lifestyles are socially embedded with their surrounding environment, have a unique connection to Arctic landscapes and seascapes. Examples include: the Saami in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Northwest Russia; the Nenets, Khanty, Evenk and Chukchi in Russia; the Aleut, Yupik and Inuit (Iñupiat) in Alaska; the Inuit (Inuvialuit) in Canada, and; the Inuit (Kalaallit) in Greenland. They rely on marine resources to hunt and fish and often transit more than 100 miles to sea in small boats to reach traditional fishing or hunting grounds.  Increased vessel traffic throughout these waterways will have serious implications, including navigation hazards as well as difficulty in conducting rescues should something happen. Additionally, sound signatures from vessels and mining and drilling operations may alter marine mammal behaviors and divert food from these areas.

Since the 1800s, these communities have become less reliant on self-subsistence alone, and have begun to rely heavily on cash and trade as well as wage employment. However, they remain heavily reliant on sustainable natural resources including fish, forests, and wildlife for their long-term sustenance, and will endure some of the most negative impacts of increased commercial maritime activity. While most of the Western world relies on industrialized food delivery systems, there are few grocers that service the Arctic because transportation challenges make delivery and sales problematic. These challenges mandate self-sustaining actions by people who live throughout the region.

Long considered a risky operation due to hazards including extremely low temperatures, unpredictable sea ice, extended winter darkness, sparse weather reporting, and long distances from SAR as well as other support services, global maritime operators are pursuing Arctic shipping.  Their hope is to shorten distances and decrease transit times from Asia to Europe as well as avoidance of the Panama and Suez Canals, which delay transit and carry hefty fees.  Between late June to early November, sea ice throughout much of the region has begun to disappear.  This trend is due to the average air temperatures throughout the Arctic region being twice the global mean increase rate, which causes a rapid decline in ice extent and viability. The lengthy openings in sea ice throughout the Arctic have created three new Arctic routes that are enabling ships to successfully and frequently transit the region. While there is limited availability of reliable vessel traffic data throughout the Arctic, according to the Marine Exchange of Alaska, vessel traffic increased by 30% between 2008 and 2010, and researchers at University of Calgary found that between 2008 and 2018 vessel traffic increased more than75%.  This data indicates a significant upward trend in maritime traffic.

The Arctic Northeast Passage connects the Far East and Europe and is 2,000-4,000 miles shorter than transit via the Suez Canal.  Another viable route is the Arctic Northwest Passage that spans the northernmost coast of North America, featuring transit through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This route features significant thick sea ice that will pose hazards to transiting ships.  The final route is transit over the North Pole, which, while significantly shorter than the other two routes, is currently inaccessible due to existing sea ice.

While some companies have sent vessels through Arctic sea passages as experiments, it is uncertain if this will be a permanent seasonal route. Companies claim they do not yet see it as a viable routine route. They are recognizing the effects of climate change will extend the window of navigation well beyond three months over the coming decade. Mike Pompeo, the United States Secretary of State, advised during his remarks at the Arctic Council on May 6, 2019, “Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade – This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.” These remarks indicate these routes will be utilized more heavily within the coming years, driven home by his assessment that Arctic sea lanes could become the “21st century Suez and Panama canals.”

This potential for increasing vessel traffic requires Arctic nations to enhance their abilities to deploy SAR assets to a ship or an oil rig in distress. In 2011, all eight Arctic nations signed the Arctic SAR Agreement, which identifies the areas of responsibility for each nation and provides a framework for the countries to collaborate in executing challenging SAR operations. Within the United States, both the Coast Guard and the Air Force have the primary responsibility for conducting SAR in the Arctic region.

Vessels that make this transit must meet minimum design standards for construction, equipment, and operations as published by the International Maritime Organization in the Polar Code. Beginning in September 2018, the container ship VENTA MAERSK became the first container ship to successfully transit the Arctic Circle. While this route from Asia to Europe would typically take 34 days and require use of the Suez Canal as they transit between the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, this polar trek will take only 23 days while completely eliminating the need for the ships to transit through the canal.

It is difficult to forecast needed SAR capacity without data from companies indicating they will begin to frequent these routes on a more regular basis. In 2018 the Canadian government announced they were building an Inshore Rescue Boat Station in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. Indigenous peoples from local Arctic communities will staff the station, and will be trained by experienced Canadian Coast Guard officials until they are ready to operate independently. Such actions could prove beneficial to Indigenous peoples who earn the highest wages when employed by governmental entities.

Environmentally, Arctic transits carry both positive and negative results. Reduced transit distances combined with slower speeds mean an overall significant reduction in maritime carbon dioxide emissions. However, a vessel transiting the area still creates negative environmental impacts in the form of local emissions, potential to bring invasive species, and risk of oil or chemical spill within the Arctic environment. The Arctic environment is highly susceptible to harm from chemical pollutants because the extreme low temperatures of the landscape and waterways reduces the ability for many of them to evaporate. Moreover, the recovery time for damaged Arctic flora and waterways also increases due to extreme meteorological factors.

One option to counter these direct impacts are the establishment of marine protected areas (MPA) throughout the Arctic Ocean. These areas would target the most necessary, vulnerable and biodiverse areas where shipping traffic will do the most harm. Once an MPA is established, vessels would be forbidden from transiting the areas and commercial operators would be restricted from drilling or mining from the seafloor. If properly planned and implemented, with input from Indigenous peoples, countries of the Arctic Council, and commercial operators, these MPAs would serve as a regulatory tool to reduce uncertainty and ensure long term viability of wildlife for sustenance throughout the region.

Optimistically, opportunity for stable long-term or seasonal employment within the shipping industry including support services may prove beneficial to Indigenous peoples.  Currently, employment in resource extraction is one of the primary employment opportunities for Indigenous peoples. However, these jobs do not have long term sustainability, once the wells and mines are depleted the jobs disappear. The industries leave behind decimated landscapes and failing towns and villages. As previously mentioned, if future demand exists, the operation of SAR stations is a long-term and sustainable form of employment. The required weather tracking and potential for ice monitoring throughout the shipping lanes will also provide long-term jobs throughout the region. While it may be unlikely ships will require refueling, since Arctic routes shorten existing transit times, opening the region to sustainable tourism activities including food service and eco-tourism activities may provide seasonal employment to many people as well as provide a vector with which people can become more educated about Arctic history and culture of Indigenous peoples.

In conclusion, the effects of climate change have impacted the Arctic region by opening new sea routes enabling commercial vessel activity and resource extraction. These activities have both positive and negative effects on the environment throughout the Arctic region. Moreover, while most of the long-term effects are uncertain, it is clear this increased maritime activity will likely change the seascape and alter the lifestyles of Indigenous populations throughout the regions. The need for SAR and disaster mitigation activities is likely and could provide for employment opportunities to people throughout the Arctic. This growth may force people to change their sustenance habits and may be force them to transition to wage earning jobs. These support jobs may be more readily available due to increased ship traffic and may include including tourism throughout the towns and villages in the Arctic. They may be more sustainable than current resource extraction jobs which terminate once the resources are gone. While many facets of this maritime growth are uncertain, it would be wise to initiate plans and policies which will be more beneficial to the population of Indigenous peoples now to ensure long term environmental and fiscal stability of the region, before it becomes an afterthought and the population experiences negative effects.



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