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Polar North shipping: Arctic indigenous voices for the International Maritime Organization

June 27, 2019


Sarah Rhee

Through all the research on the impacts of polar north shipping, it is essential for the International Maritime Organization to tighten their policies regarding trading ships traveling through Arctic waters. As climate change melts the Arctic at an alarming 14,400 square-miles a year, the waters become easier to travel. This melting result in the environment of wildlife becoming threatened when trading ships are traveling more and more frequently at an average of 94% annual increase with limited regulation. This situation threatens food security, strength in economy, as well as the Indigenous peoples’ traditions. Increased shipping has raised concerns for not just the Indigenous peoples, but also many people who live in the North. These trading ships travel across numerous international bodies of water. The only organization to set regulation on travel patterns are the IMO (International Maritime Organization). This organization’s intention is to provide safe and efficient shipping with preventative measures of pollution. However, because of the newly found possibility to travel in these regions, there are few restrictions on which environments these ships are traveling through. Different nations have different standards while the IMO has another set of standards. This document is called the Polar Code. The IMO adopted the Polar Code in 2017, which sets out regulations for Polar shipping and navigation through ice.

Research Findings

This year, more and more trading companies have sent their ships through the Arctic after learning they could travel without having to break ice as they travel. Sailing through the Northern Sea Route from Europe to Asian ports are now 6,000 nautical miles shorter than sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. This is a 43% cut in all travel costs. This reduction saves the company’s budget on transportation cost because traveling through the Arctic is shorter than their original trading routes. The largest concern from Arctic environmentalists is the emission of black carbon from trading ships. Black carbon is particles from the purest form of carbon and it originates usually from anthropogenic occurring soot. Researchers are especially wary of this component of fine carbon because, as it is released in the Arctic atmosphere, it embeds itself into the layers of Arctic ice and snow. This situation is dangerous because it absorbs the suns heat instead of the natural occurrence of reflection from the ice and snow’s albedo. As a result, the Arctic is melting at a more rapid rate. It raises alarm not only for future of the Arctic wildlife, but also the Indigenous peoples that would be sustained by the animals. More research from scientists indicates that by 2030-2040, the Arctic will be ice-free in most late summers. That is in just a decade or two. This trend would suggest open opportunities for trading ships to travel in the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route. It would also lead us to believe that potential extraction of minerals, gases and other goods in the Arctic would proceed. Another by-product of an ice-free Arctic is the proliferation of fishing and other tourist attractions.

Another adverse effect of an ice-free Arctic is rising sea levels. This causes the pH levels in the Arctic waters to drop, resulting in ocean acidification. Ocean acidification occurs when carbon dioxide breaks down into the ocean, forming carbonic acid. Carbon acid then leads to higher acidity levels, which endangers the Arctic wildlife. Ocean acidification restricts growth in marine animals as well as cause disorders with reproduction. Today, there are four million people living in the Arctic (ACIA, 6-7). This proliferation of ocean acidification directly affects their lives because it will heighten their mortality rate. The melting ice and ocean acidification has caused the wildlife population to decrease. Arctic inhabitants are reliant on Arctic wildlife for maintenance of food, trade, and cultural purposes. Without these animals, the Indigenous Arctic population will starve, lose their economy and slowly fail to retain their way of life. These losses are all expedited with the increase of shipping and lack of policies to regulate the pollution these ships are emitting.

Current Federal/State Policy

The overarching organization that oversees shipping regulation is the International Maritime Organization (IMO). They are a special branch of the United Nations that was founded in 1948. Since then, they have implemented policies designed to ship safely and securely around the world. The IMO conventions have resulted in the implementation of the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS), Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), and the Standards for Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).

The UN implemented SOLAS in 1912 after the tragic events of the Titanic. This treaty sets a standard of safety regulations for the construction, equipment, and operation of ships that are flying under flags of ratifying nations of the UN. However, the main issue is that major maritime trading nations are not able to inspect most merchant ships because companies will register them under “flags of convenience.” This fact means that they fly under flags that do not recognize SOLAS because they are not ratifying nations of the UN.

MARPOL is a significant maritime convention held to discuss the prevention of pollution from ships. MARPOL has six annexes that regulate the prevention of different types of pollution. The first annex regulates pollution by oil; the second regulates pollution by noxious liquid substances bulk; the third regulates pollution by harmful substances carried by sea in packaged form; the fourth regulates sewage from ships; the fifth regulates waste from ships; and the sixth regulates air pollution from ships. The main issue from MARPOL is that the U.S. Coast Guard, Russia, and Canada all have additional regulations to prevent pollution that extends beyond MARPOL (Congress of the United States, 28). This fact would indicate that the UN must update MARPOL and have tighter regulations, especially with the rapid increase of polar north shipping in the recent and coming years.

The IMOs final implementation to regulate oversees shipping is the STCW. The STCW is a standard qualification that any crew members, officers and any personnel on trading ships as well as large yachts must pass. It is basic safety training so that all seafarers are equipped to be ready for anything on the waters. In order to get your STCW endorsement, you must pass each of the STCW certificates that cover your age, sea-service, physical fitness and competence.

Policy Implication/Recommendations of Research

I believe the best way to advocate for the Indigenous people is to push the IMO and argue for tighter restrictions so that we can have efficient shipping in the Polar North and not endanger the livelihoods of the people living there. The IMO needs to update their policies. Trading nations all follow the IMO’s policies and have additional pollution regulations that they see necessary. Other countries should not be the standard for safety regulation and pollution regulation. Rather, the IMO should be the organization to hold other nations accountable and regulate to their highest potential. If the IMO is able to uphold stricter regulations, the rate of ocean acidification and the emission of black carbon will decrease and temporarily slow down the melting of Arctic ice. However, this is not a permanent solution. Climate change is a massive issue that not only affects the Arctic, but every corner of the world. Though it is not significantly impacting our lives immediately, the future that we have been warned about is not as far off as we would like to think. There are lives being affected today, and communities in the Arctic are being destroyed now. We must take action now. The IMO must take action now.



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