44 per cent increase in unique ships entering Canada’s Northwest Passage, says report

In this July 21, 2017 file photo, researchers look out from the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as the sun sets over sea ice in the Victoria Strait along the Northwest Passage in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. (David Goldman/AP Photo)
The number of ships entering Canada’s Northwest Passage, and the distances sailed, are all increasing, says a new report from the Arctic Council.

The report, “Arctic Shipping Status Report – Shipping in the Northwest Passage,”  was done by the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) working group using data from its Arctic Ship Traffic Data Base.

A six-year period was looked at from 2013-2019.

The report found that during this period, unique ships entering the waterway increased 44 per cent, from 112 ships in 2013 to 160 ships in 2019.

Maps comparing ship tracking between 2013 and 2019 in the Northwest Passage. (PAME – Arctic Shipping Status Report #3)

When it came to the distance travelled by ships in the Northwest Passage, the report found it had increased 107 per cent from an average 2.98 nautical miles per vessel in 2013 to an average of 6.17 nautical miles in 2019.

Canadian flagged ships majority of vessels

The Northwest Passage is collective term used to describe the various maritime routes that run across Canada’s arctic archipelago between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It measures approximately 1,500 kilometers from east to west.

Two of the routes along the Northwest Passage are considered deep water routes while the rest are shallow and limit the size of vessels able to navigate them.

The report found the majority of the ships using the Northwest Passage were Canadian flagged, followed in order by the Marshall Islands, Panama, the Bahamas and the Netherlands.

The most common vessels were bulk carriers, cargo ships, fishing vessels and cruise ships.

Canadian flagged ships made up the majority of ships in the Northwest Passage in both 2013 and 2019. ((PAME – Arctic Shipping Status Report #3)

The Arctic Ship Traffic Data Base divides vessels’ size into seven groups based on gross tonnage (GT), calculated using the volume of enclosed spaces on a given ship.

The six groupings are:

  • <1000 GT
  • 1000-4999 GT
  • 5000-9999 GT
  • 10.000-24.999 GT
  • 25.000-49.999 GT
  • 50.000-99.999 GT
  • >= 100.000 GT

The report found that until now, ships in Canada’s Northwest Passage were represented in only the five smallest groups.

“No ships in the two biggest size groups (50.000-99.999 GT >= 100.000 GT) were present – showing that the ships operating within the [Northwest Passage] are comparatively smaller to ships operating elsewhere,” the report said.

Latest in series of reports

Arctic Shipping Status Report – Shipping in the Northwest Passage” is the third of PAME’s Arctic shipping status papers. The previous two reports looked at Arctic shipping trends and heavy fuel oil.

The Arctic Council is an international forum made up the world’s eight Arctic countries: Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States; and the six Arctic Indigenous groups: the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Saami Council.

The forum was was established in 1996 to work on sustainable development and environmental protection in the North.

The Arctic Council’s six working groups are made up of experts from around the world who examine issues ranging from environmental protection, to sustainable development, to emergency response in the Arctic.

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Chinese barges headed for Canadian Northwest Territories on cross-continental delivery mission, CBC News

Estonia: Estonian president favorable towards Arctic railway project, cautious about future of Arctic shipping, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Arctic Guardian exercise 2021 underway to test joint emergency marine response, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: The Viking Sky incident – A wake-up call for the Arctic cruise industry?, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: North Russian regions want extension of Arctic shipping route, The Independent Barents Observer

United StatesMore shippers and shipping companies boycott Arctic sea routes, but it isn’t solving the problem, experts claim, The Independent Barents Observer

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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