What's In a Name? NORDREG Becomes Mandatory

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On July 1st, NORDREG, the Coast Guard’s Arctic Canada Traffic System, became mandatory. This means that vessels with a gross tonnage of 300 tonnes or more are now required by Canadian law to report information such as identity, position and destination to the Canadian Coast Guard. The stated objectives of the system are 1) the enhancement of safety and movement of traffic; 2) the prevention of pollution of Arctic waters by establishing a method of screening vessels in Arctic waters; and 3) the strengthening of Canadian sovereignty in Arctic waters.

Since the system was implemented in 1977, NORDREG had been voluntary.  However ships entering the Northwest Passage had a strong motivation to report to the Coast Guard as they were provided services, free of charge, such as ice information, ice routing, icebreaker assistance, and search and rescue.  In fact it was quite successful, with Coast Guard and Transport Canada officials estimating that 98% of vessels entering Canadian Arctic waters notified the government of their presence.

So why the change? First it must be said that pretty much no one was against making NORDREG mandatory, and indeed many experts had been calling for it for years.  The change in regulations costs virtually nothing.  And as legal scholar Donat Pharand posited, probably the only reason it wasn’t already compulsory was because Canada has not been in a position to make it compulsory: how do we find the small ships who do not report, and what do we do with the big ones (ie. naval vessels) that we do find?  (We are not really in any better position to enforce a mandatory system, but the powers that be seem to have come to the conclusion that the risks of impotence are not sufficiently high to continue on with a voluntary regime.)

The other consideration was that other countries would probably be non-plussed by the designation, reinforcing as it does the Canadian claim that the Arctic waters are internal, and not an international strait.  To the Americans, European and Chinese, this compromises the principle of freedom of navigation in the high seas.  But in the end the Canadian government was less concerned about a minor irritant to our neighbours than in reinforcing the case for Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.

Having established that the switch to a mandatory system is a rather benign thing, it is worth pointing out that it is also, in practice, meaningless.  The new rules apply only to ships with a gross tonnage of over 300 tonnes.  That is a big ship.  No criminal racket or terrorist group is going to try to sneak in to Canada on a boat that size.  And if they did, presumably they would be breaking other laws by which officials could detain them other than not reporting to NORDREG.  And vessels weighing over 300 tonnes are already required under international law to carry Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), which automatically provide information – such as the ship’s identity, type, position, course, speed, navigational status and other safety-related information – to coastal authorities.  That mandatory international law is pretty much what NORDREG now makes mandatory.

So much for added safety and security.  But environmental protection doesn’t really improve under a mandatory NORDREG either.  Canada already has every right, under domestic and international law, to restrict access to our waters to vessels if they don’t meet certain environmental standards.  The 98% of those that already report likely meet these standards, otherwise they wouldn’t come through in the first place.  The ones that don’t will likely try to pass through without reporting, in which case we need to enhance the ability to monitor and enforce existing laws, not change the wording of a piece of paper.

So why make NORDREG mandatory?  It always goes back to sovereignty.  We are obsessed with sovereignty.  And even though there is no practical purpose, making NORDREG mandatory provides Harper with one more bullet point to add to his list of things he is doing to ‘protect and defend’ Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.

There are many things Canada should be doing to enhance the safety, security, and environmental protection of its Arctic waters.  Some we are already doing, including contributions to international attempts to make Arctic shipping regulations mandatory and coordinating circumpolar Search and Rescue efforts.  Some we need to work harder on, including developing a regional seas agreement for the Arctic Ocean.  A mandatory NORDREG doesn’t make any appreciable difference to these objectives.  While not a bad thing in itself, it underscores the need to invest actual resources into protecting our safety, security, and environment in the Arctic, and not just send out press releases celebrating the government’s proactive approach to Arctic sovereignty.

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Heather Exner-Pirot

Heather Exner-Pirot

Heather Exner-Pirot is a Research Associate at the Observatoire de la politique et la sécurité de l'Arctique (OPSA) and the managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook. She has held positions at the University of Saskatchewan, the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development and the University of the Arctic. She completed her doctoral degree in political science at the University of Calgary in 2011. She has published extensively in Arctic and northern governance, human security, and Indigenous economic development. Read Heather Exner-Pirot’s articles

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