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Protecting the Polar Seaways

This article is part of an Arctic in Context series featuring Winter 2017 Arctic Research Fellows from the International Policy Institute, in the Henry M. Jackson School at the University of Washington. This Arctic research program is dedicated to improving the transfer of research and expertise between higher education and the policy world in the area of global affairs.

By David Rivera

When most people think about sailing, they dream about cruising on a sleek sailboat in warm, crystal-blue waters with the sun on their faces and not a care in the world. But for those of us who have worked on the open ocean in remote regions like the Arctic, sailing means something else entirely. These are among the most dangerous seas in the world, yet the harshness of the polar environment is equally matched by its fragility. On New Year’s Day 2017, just months after Crystal Serenity became the first cruise ship to transit the Northwest Passage, the International Maritime Organization began implementation of the Polar Code with the intent to increase safety at sea and protect the environment in both Arctic and Antarctic waters.

Shipping studies suggest that Arctic routes—the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage—are currently not viable for most types of commercial traffic. However, the dramatic reduction in summer sea ice is now allowing for increased maritime activity in other sectors, particularly the cruise and charter industries. Identifying the potential for significant environmental damage and the lack of guidance for properly governing the ocean, the Arctic Council formally requested that the IMO create a Polar Code document based on recommendations produced from the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment in 2009. The IMO began drafting the document the next year. 

The Polar Code is essentially a how-to guide for large ships sailing in the Arctic—it specifically applies to vessels that are 500 gross tons or more in size and all passenger vessels, including ferries and cruise ships. Composed of both mandatory regulations and recommended guidelines for ships and their crews, the code seeks to ensure that ships operating in the High North are equipped for its icy waters. These measures outline structural issues, safety training, navigation, and pollution discharge guidelines, to name a few. But despite the eight long years it took to reach Polar Code implementation, in many areas the document seems to have fallen short.

The most attention-grabbing examples of marine pollution are the enormous ocean gyres where floating trash extends into the horizon. But pollution in the Arctic is relatively low compared to other oceans, and is typically found in the discharge of contaminants and other wastes. The heavy fuel oils (HFOs) used by most large shipping vessels are particularly harmful to the environment, as they take on average four times longer to break down in colder water than do lighter-grade fuels such as diesel. Additionally, combustion of HFOs produces black soot in emissions, which is proven to increase ice melting. Toxins and oil-based products are already finding their way into the highest levels of the food chain, raising public health concerns for the Arctic Indigenous peoples who rely largely on subsistence hunting. The introduction of invasive species is another area of environmental concern: According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, invasive species cost the United States over $120 billion in damages annually, and the primary mechanism for all marine invasive species transport is international maritime shipping. 

Academics, environmentalists, and indigenous groups alike agree that the Polar Code’s environmental regulations are not strict enough. Instead, they consider the document a first step toward protecting the Arctic, providing a minimum standard. Without a more rigorous set of guidelines that address concerns like banning the use of HFOs, the code raises concerns as to how the Arctic Council can convince ship owners to invest in keeping the Arctic Ocean both clean and safe. 

For all the criticism of the IMO, it should have been expected from the start of the drafting process that there would be strong opposition to stringent environmental regulations from many industry representatives and states like Russia. Adhering to mandatory regulations is expensive for companies as it requires significant investment in vessel infrastructure. Additionally, global enforcement is difficult because all implementation of IMO regulations is voluntary. Both the Arctic Council and IMO have had to learn through trial and error how to produce results, and the Polar Code represents yet another attempt at navigating uncharted regulatory waters.

The code’s vague language is also criticized for leaving room for shippers to take advantage of potential loopholes. Still, its flexible structure also provides an opportunity to embrace technological advancement and innovation. At a conference in June, for instance, representatives of the insurance giant Lloyds of London, along with other members of the insurance community, met with representatives of the Arctic Council to further discuss how maritime insurance will work with the Polar Code. The meeting was intended to initiate collaboration on issues of risk management and to develop language in insurance code that better protects the Arctic environment.

While the Arctic Council has historically been a forum for issues to be voluntarily addressed in a collaborative format, it may become necessary for it to act as a governing body in order to implement stronger environmental protections. Member states will need to sign a binding agreement, similar to recent Arctic Council pacts on search and rescue and oil spill response. This will require strong leadership and trust among indigenous groups, national governments, nongovernmental organizations, and private stakeholders. All these groups will need to commit to following a stricter set of rules if maritime regulation around environmental issues is to be effective.

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David Rivera is a recent master’s graduate from the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, and has been working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) for the last seven years as a research scientist/engineer involved in various oceanographic and engineering projects around the world.  

Find the lead article to the series here.

[Images courtesy of Arctic Portal and IMO]

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