Canada: Canada Chairs A Busy Arctic Council

Last Updated: December 23 2013
Article by Peter G. Pamel

Most Read Contributor in Canada, September 2016

At the last Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council, held in Kiruna, Sweden, on May 15, 2013, the Council adopted its second international agreement, the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. In brief, the Agreement requires each State Party to maintain a national oil pollution response system addressing pollution in their northern waters (in Canada`s case, the waters lying north of the 60th parallel of North latitude), together with a national contingency plan. The Parties must also establish a minimum level of pre-positioned oil spill combating equipment, a program of exercises for the response organization, a training program for personnel and a competent national authority responsible for preparedness and response. A national, 24-hour-a-day operation contact point, where oil pollution reports can be received and transmitted, is also compulsory for each State Party, as well as an authority entitled to act on behalf of that State to request assistance or to decide on rendering it if asked.

On that same day in May, Canada assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council for the next two years, adopting as its theme, "Development for the People of the North", with a focus on responsible resource development, safe shipping and sustainable circumpolar communities. Chair of the Council at this time will be significant work, as the Council is already engaged on 11 priority initiatives that will constitute the focus of its work during the next two years. Those more directly connected with shipping and the marine environment are outlined here.

Following up on the Marine Oil Pollution Agreement, the Council has established a new Task Force to develop an Action Plan to prevent marine oil pollution in the Arctic. The Task Force on Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Prevention (TFOPP), chaired by Norway and Russia, will strive to conclude arrangements to implement the Action Plan. TFOPP's first meeting was held in Norway in November 2013, and the Task Force plans to make recommendation to the Council`s Ministerial Meeting in 2015.

The Council is also preparing Guidelines for Sustainable Tourism and Cruise Ship Operations in the Arctic. This project has been assigned to one of the Arctic Council's most active Working Groups, the one devoted to Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME). Canada has already submitted a discussion paper to PAME`s meeting held in Russia in October 2013 and has been invited to prepare a draft work plan, including a proposed timeframe, scope, goals, outreach and deliverables. PAME is establishing a contact group with representatives from other Working Groups to address this issue. Focused discussion with experts and Northerners will occur in early 2014 and the Guidelines, as they emerge, will be discussed with the communities involved. Initially, PAME has invited member governments to submit information on their domestic rules and policies pertaining to cruise ship tourism in the Arctic. Best practices can thus be identified, taking account of current trends in the Arctic cruise ship industry and existing rules, standards and guidelines. Canada and the United States are taking the lead in this important initiative, the urgency of which is seen in the increased cruise ship traffic, and some related incidents which have occurred "north of 60" in the last few years, as melting ice has attracted greater numbers of eco-tourists to northern waters.

At the same time, the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan (AMSP), adopted in November 2004, is to be revised, in order to take account of increasing pressures from climate change, economic activities and pollution, and to incorporate the findings and recommendations of Arctic Council projects, in a ten-year vision for marine protection of Arctic waters. The AMSP revision will be coordinated by PAME with the projects of other Working Groups. The final draft of the AMSP revision is expected to be completed during the summer of 2014, and then submitted to the Senior Arctic Officials and the Ministerial Meeting in 2015.

Another major initiative of the Arctic Council in the next two years will be to promote the conclusion by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) of the long-awaited International Polar Code, governing the design, construction, equipment and operation of vessels in both the Arctic and the Antarctic and the training of seafarers for the challenges of navigating there, as well as search and rescue and environmental protection matters. This too is an urgent priority, particularly given the recent increase in seagoing traffic across both the Northern Sea Route on the Russian side of the Arctic and in and through the Northwest Passage on the Canadian side. At the IMO, agreement in principle has been reached on definitions for the different categories of ship to covered by the Code (Categories A, B and C). All ships operating the waters concerned will be required to have a Polar Ship Certificate and a Polar Water Operation Manual. The Code is to be adopted by separate resolutions of IMO's Marine Safety Committee (MSC) and its Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) and will be mandatory. IMO's Secretary-General, Koji Sekimizu, who made his own personal voyage of discovery across the Northern Sea Route in August 2013, predicts that the Code will be adopted in 2015 and should be in force by 2016, providing a crucial legal framework to make Arctic shipping safer in the years to come, thus implementing one of the 17 key recommendations contained in the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, adopted by the Council in 2009.

Finally, although not directly related to shipping per se, mention must be made of the Arctic Council's initiative in working to develop a Circumpolar Business Forum to help promote economic development for the benefit of Northern populations on both sides of the North Pole. Key to the success of this initiative will be establishing guidelines to manage that development in a sustainable mode and in a manner that includes the indigenous peoples of the circumpolar region.

Together with the political challenge that Canada will face chairing the Arctic Council (including working with the 12 States that now have observer status and handling the E.U.'s application for such status, deferred in 2013), it is obvious from the above outline that the next two years could see some crucial decisions being taken, setting in place a more elaborate and, it is to be hoped, effective legal framework for the region concerned and for the international shipping community, as the Arctic continues to struggle to adjust to its own rapid and challenging transformation.

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