While few countries support Canada’s claim that the Northwest Passage constitutes internal waters, many do support its attempt to promote national sovereignty over its seas. On July 1, Canada made formerly voluntary registration with NORDREG mandatory for all ships 300 tonnes or more passing through its Arctic waters. If a ship is found in the enforced area without having registered, the ship will be detained at the next port of call. Those responsible are liable to pay up to CAN$100,000 or face one year in jail. Canadian officials believe that the new regulations will boost safety in the dangerous, icy waters of the Arctic, since search and rescue might be made easier with better tracking of vessels.
However, many of the world’s major shipping companies disagree with this move. The Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), an independent international shipping organization representing two-thirds of the world’s shippers, has sent a letter to Canada objecting to the new shipping rules. In the letter, BIMCO states, “This could be seen as effectively interfering with the right to innocent passage.” The NGO worries that if a ship were denied registration, it would not be allowed to pass. Furthermore, BIMCO disagrees with Canada’s extension of environmental protections through its Exclusive Economic Zone, extending 200 nautical miles from the coast, and calls the measure “drastic.”
The group wants Canada to obtain approval from the International Maritime Organization before enforcing the new rules. Mélanie Quesnel, media relations advisor to Transport Canada, was quoted by maritime newspaper Lloyd’s List as claiming, “These regulations do not require approval by the International Maritime Organization and are consistent with international law. The waters in question are within the exclusive jurisdiction of Canada and there is no legal obligation to seek approval from the IMO.”
Indeed, there might not be any real legal pressure from BIMCO, as it is a non-governmental organization. However, University of British Columbia professor Michael Byers was quoted in the Vancouver Sun as saying,
“In international law, it doesn’t matter what BIMCO thinks, since only nation-states — acting collectively — can make or change the rules. But industry pressure can influence the positions taken by the major shipping states, including the U.S., Panama, Germany, South Korea, China and Japan.”
So if shipping companies decide to reroute their vessels to avoid Canada’s tracking system, and thus Canadian ports of call, then Ottawa might respond. Of course, the Northwest Passage is still quite difficult to navigate, and most ships going from the Far East to Europe go north of Siberia along Russia’s Northern Sea Route rather than plying through Canada’s largely frozen waters.
“Canada to get tough with Arctic rules offenders,” Lloyd’s List