Maritime Domain Awareness

15 November 2013

The world is coming to the Canadian Arctic – we no longer have the luxury of taking a wait-and-see attitude – therefore, a robust Marine Domain Awareness (MDA) capability must be developed as an element of Canada’s northern strategy. At the recent Halifax International Security Forum, the U.S. Department of Defense released its policy document on the Arctic, asserting that it is a dynamic security environment, and information is key. MDA is an important and underlying foundation of ocean management and, increasingly, the regulation of shipping in coastal waters. MDA should factor into the development and evolution of a “world class Arctic regime” especially at the prevention stage of a risk management based approach to marine governance. The Maritime Domain is defined as all areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering a sea, ocean, or other navigable water­way, including all maritime related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, and vessels and other ­conveyances. The IMO (International ­Maritime Organization) defines Maritime Domain Awareness as the effective understanding  of anything associated with the  maritime domain that could impact  the security, safety, economy, or environment.

While achieving MDA may seem straightforward, it is not at all simple. During a February 2007 presentation, Lieutenant-General Marc Dumais, then commander of Canada Command, explained that MDA “is neither an operation nor a mission. You do not do MDA, you achieve it. All agencies contribute to it. It knows no owner but responds to many masters who readily use it to achieve respective goals.”

In a nutshell, therein lies the problem with developing a robust MDA capability. Although the Marine Operation Security Centres (MOSC) have been successfully developed to deal with marine security threats, there is currently no single lead or coordination function under a legislative framework and with a legal process to share information between the many federal departments. Transport Canada, for instance, acknowledges that MDA requires a coordinated effort within the federal government as well as with stakeholders and global partners.

This year saw the first commercial transit of the Northwest Passage with the voyage of the Suemaz bulk carrier Nordic Orion in September; it was loaded with a full cargo of metallurgical coal. The vessel operator, Nordic Carriers, is very experienced in ice navigation and cooperated fully with Canadian authorities. The vessel had a Canadian ice pilot on board and a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker was in the vicinity during part of the transit. That may not always be the case, especially given the non-recognition of Canadian internal waters by other nations who consider the Northwest Passage to be an international strait and subject to the right of transit­ ­passage under the Law of the Sea convention. In other words, they may not seek Canadian permission or accede to Canadian jurisdiction.

While Canada seeks to develop the Polar Code which works to develop international shipping standards through the IMO, there is a clear need, as a coastal state, to have an awareness of international shipping and other activity in Arctic waters. This is a key component of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty infrastructure.

The same can be said with respect to Marine domain awareness in the Canadian Arctic. In earlier issues of FrontLine, I have written on maintaining MDA in the Arctic, given the increase in marine traffic. With continued decreases in ice volume and extent, it seems clear, given the interest of non-Arctic states in the Arctic Council that international shipping and other types of Marine activities such as fishing and ecotourism are also going to increase. Record numbers of vessels have been transiting the Russian northern sea route. Canada as an Arctic and Ocean nation needs capability and capacity to understand what is going on in its Arctic waters and, in fact, all three oceans surrounding the country.

September 2013 was the first transit through Canada’s Northwest Passage by a fully loaded commercial cargo vessel. Many commentators had been convinced that commercial traffic would never occur in the Canadian Arctic, thinking multi-year ice in the west entrance would block passage and assuming the route would not be economically viable due to increased marine insurance costs. They were wrong.

All this changed when the Danish-owned ice-strengthened Panamax bulk carrier Nordic Orion, loaded with a cargo of metallurgical coal, sailed from Vancouver to Finland early in September. Built in 2011, the Japanese-built ship is a 75,000 deadweight-tonne vessel. The Northwest ­Passage route saved distance, time and money, as the vessel was able to carry its full deadweight cargo as opposed to a reduced load if she had been required to transit the Panama Canal, which imposes depth restrictions. This Arctic voyage shaved 1,000 nautical miles off the voyage, saving fuel and CO2 emissions. It is estimated the vessel saved $200,000 in fuel costs and Panama Canal transit fees. There were no reported problems with this voyage.
Earlier, in 2012, the cruise ship The World made a transit of the Northwest Passage carrying likely over 500 passengers. The vessel encountered very little ice in 2012. This cruise ship, like the Nordic Orion, carried a Canadian ice navigator but was not ice strengthened. Such precedent-setting voyages will only increase, as we have seen with the Northern Sea Route over the top in Russia.

Is Canada, as a coastal and Arctic nation, ready to manage all marine activity in its Arctic waters? As one commentator indicated, we can no longer simply talk about the Arctic, Canada has “to walk the walk”, and needs to be ready for increased arctic shipping. The future is now.

Canada’s Northern Strategy, announced in 2009, sets out broad concepts but does not explicitly address international shipping in the Northwest Passage, or lay a detailed plan for its development as a major international shipping route.

At the Arctic Futures conference in Norway earlier this year, Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell spoke about the Arctic Ocean, which he dubbed the “New Ocean”. He stated: “This is the age of Arctic shipping the great explorers dreamed of. We've been given a new ocean of possibilities – and dangers – and we need to do everything we can to prepare for both”. He called on Arctic nations to work closely on vessel routing and reciprocal port regulations to ensure safe, secure Arctic shipping.

His subsequent comments also ring true: “Arctic nations need to engage much more deeply on a strategic plan to realize the economic benefits of Arctic shipping. I look at the model of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which brings Canada and the United States together to provide both safe navigation and market promotion.”

Canada released its Arctic foreign policy document in 2010, which focused on issues of sovereignty but does not address the more pressing issue of international shipping, and requirements to regulate international shipping that was expected to pass through the NW Passage. This year, Canada assumed the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council for two years. It has moved away from the earlier Arctic “Lose it or- use it” approach announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2007, and has softened its posture since then.

Canada’s present approach at the Arctic Council was set out by Canadian MP and Arctic Chair, the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, at the Arctic Frontiers: Geopolitics & Marine Production in a Changing Arctic conference in Trømso, Norway in January 2013. Aglukkaq stated Canada will focus its approach on sustainable economic development of the Arctic: “With the help of our Arctic Council partners, we will focus on creating economic growth, strong and sustainable Northern communities and healthy ecosystems […] However, this development must be done in a responsible and environmentally sustainable manner so that the land, water and animals that many Northern people still depend upon, are not negatively impacted.”
The Arctic Council is a relatively new and unique multilateral international organization created in 1996. Comprised of both Arctic nations and indigenous peoples, it was created as a forum to develop cooperation around Arctic issues.

The Arctic Council’s eight members include: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Non-Arctic countries and organizations have sought observer status as the Council’s mandate has expanded. This year, India, Italy, Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea have been granted permanent observer status. It is important to note that the Arctic Council does not address security interests in the region.

The interest of non-Arctic states highlights the growing importance the world’s governments place on the work of the Arctic Council, which is expanding its role to deal with governance issues in the region. Countries want a seat at the table to have a voice in how the Arctic is going to be managed, and non-Arctic nations don’t want to be left out of these important discussions which will have both long term and global impacts.

In recent years, the Arctic Council has taken a more operational focus to develop governance regimes around commercial activities such as shipping, which normally has been the purview of the IMO. The Arctic Council has developed an international agreement on search and rescue, as well as marine pollution response. These international agreements set broad mandates for cooperation.

The United States will assume the Council’s Chairmanship in 2015. Earlier this year, the U.S. released its Arctic National Strategy, which lays out the Obama Administration’s strategic priorities for the region with the stated purpose of positioning the United States “to respond effectively to emerging opportunities while simultaneously pursuing efforts to protect and conserve this unique environment”. Shortly thereafter, the US Coast Guard released its Arctic strategy to “ensure safe, secure and environmentally responsible maritime activity in the Arctic”. Canada has no similar document.

Maritime Domain Awareness is a key piece of Canada sovereignty infrastructure and shipping governance. Canada needs to increase its capability to deal with MDA in the Arctic using a new service delivery model, much like the polar communications and weather system project. As a nation, Canada needs to work closely with our allies, most importantly the Unites States, and develop a unique and effective MDA model that includes the latest in technology with a strong northern community component.

The sharing of information in such an MDA model is a key component for Arctic governance in a dynamic and changing Arctic shipping environment. If Canada wishes to be an Arctic Nation, it needs eyes in the Arctic.

K. Joseph Spears is the Principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group and has 30 years experience in shipping and ocean and Arctic governance . He spoke at the DRDC Northern Watch Conference. He can be reached at joe.hbmg2@gmail.com
© FrontLine Defence 2013