Canada introduces mandatory vessel-tracking for ships in Arctic waters

The Umiavut near Resolute Bay, Canada
The Umiavut near Resolute Bay, Canada

Beginning July 1, Canada will enforce the Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services (NORDREG) policy in its Arctic waters. Vessel tracking will be mandatory for cargo ships, cruise liners, ships over 300 tons, and those carrying hazardous material traveling through Canada’s Arctic waters up to 200 miles out from shoreline (the full extent of the Exclusive Economic Zone), an area known as the Arctic Canada Tracking Zone. These waters include the Northwest Passage, which Canada regards as internal waters, while the U.S. views them as international straits.

NORDREG is operated by the Marine Communications and Traffic Services, part of the Canadian Coast Guard. Previously, it had been optional for ships sailing around Canada’s Arctic archipelago to report to the Coast Guard, but it will now be mandatory for certain ships to report their identity, position, and destination. The service is free, and in return, ships can also get information regarding ice conditions and even potentially icebreaker assistance. The Coast Guard’s website has the NORDREG requirements from 2008 explained in more detail.

The new rules were announced by Fisheries Minister Gail Shea at a news conference in Ottawa. The Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans is in charge of the Canadian Coast Guard. The new rules are designed to prevent terrorist activity, improve search and rescue capabilities, and make it easier to respond to disasters in the Arctic like oil spills or shipwrecks. Interestingly, however, the first sentence in a press release from Transport Canada emphasized how the measure will enhance Canadian Arctic sovereignty, reading,

“Today the Honourable Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, and Minister responsible for the Canadian Coast Guard, and Senator Claude Carignan announced another important measure to protect and defend Canada’s northern sovereignty.”

According to the Coast Guard’s website, NORDREG’s goals are:

  1. To enhance the safe and efficient movement of maritime transportation in Arctic waters by establishing an interface between the Canadian Coast Guard and maritime transportation.
  2. To prevent pollution of Arctic waters by establishing a method of screening vessels in Arctic waters to ensure their compliance with regulations made pursuant to the Arctic Waters Pollution Act and
    Part XV of the Canada Shipping Act.
  3. To strengthen Canadian sovereignty in Arctic waters.

Since NORDREG covers the disputed Northwest Passage, is has predictably struck a nerve with American policymakers. An article in Nunatsiaq Online reported that the U.S. has “mixed feelings” regarding the new regulations. As quoted by the article, a senior official from Transport Canada said,

“The U.S. has sort of a mixed view of it. They recognize for the purposes of pollution prevention and safety of navigation, that such measures are a good idea. On the other hand, they do like to maintain the freedom to navigate. They’re keen about that — they have a large navy.”

Indeed, in 2006, it was revealed that U.S. Navy nuclear submarines had traveled unannounced through Canada’s Arctic waters, raising quite a few hairs in Ottawa. Now, Canada should be better able to keep track of all the vessels in its northern waters – while ostensibly preventing parka-wearing terrorists in the Arctic as well.

News links

“Canada will track ships sailing Arctic waters,”Vancouver Sun

“Ottawa’s new Arctic shipping rules kick in July 1,” Nunutsiaq Online

“Government of Canada takes action to protect Canadian Arctic Waters,” Press Release from the Department of Transportation

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