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Regional Environment Case Study - Canadian Arctic

(from ASMA Report 2009)


For many years shipping has been the main link to the outside world for remote Arctic communities in Canada and yearly sealifts remain the key source of goods and necessities for many communities. Shipping in the Canadian Arctic has been occurring in a safe and relatively environmentally sustainable way for many years. This has been due to the historically low level of activity, as well as the regulatory restrictions that have been in place to protect Canadian Arctic waters from shipping since the 1970s in the form of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act. The types of shipping activity occurring in the Canadian Arctic during 2004 can be grouped into the following activities: community re-supply (i.e., tug-barge, cargo, fuel tankers), Canadian Coast Guard and research activity, cargo and re-supply support for resource development operations, cargo shipments in and out of the Port of Churchill and tourism.

The Canadian Arctic remains one of the last frontiers for natural resources and one of the last areas of relatively pristine wilderness on earth. It is a region with virtually no roads, no rail lines and where air services are infrequent and very costly. The lack of infrastructure and the extreme climate have, until recently, made this region uneconomical for large-scale resource development. Rising prices of oil, gas and other commodities and the changing climatic and geographic restraints may combine to allow significant and rapid increases in resource development activity in the Canadian Arctic, which would lead to increased destinational shipping traffic in the region and intra-regional traffic. How this potential increase may impact the local environment is not known. However, any increase in activity brings with it a corresponding increase in the risk of damage to the environment both from normal ship operations and accidents or emergencies. Due to the current relatively low levels of shipping activity occurring in the Canadian Arctic, any increase in activity in this region will be significant.

Currently four of the Arctic’s 17 Large Marine Ecosystems occur in Canadian waters: Hudson Bay, Baffin Bay/Davis Strait, Arctic Archipelago and Beaufort Sea. The Canadian Arctic is home to a diverse range of wildlife that thrives across this variety of ecosystems. These populations are now under stress to varying degrees due to the changes occurring in the Arctic environment as a result of global climate change.

Areas that are vulnerable to new developments include wintering areas of bowhead and beluga in Hudson and Davis straits, spring migration routes for those whales into Hudson Bay and Foxe Basin and north into Lancaster Sound. Seabird breeding colonies and staging areas for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds occur in several locations throughout the region.

Specific adverse impacts associated with shipping activity that are of the most concern in the Canadian Arctic include the discharge of pollutants into the marine environment and the disruption or disturbance of migratory patterns of wildlife that would, in turn, impact indigenous hunting activity. In this region, icebreakers leave behind open water channels that may disrupt the movements of wildlife and people traveling on the ice. Icebreakers or other ships traveling through ice-covered waters where seals are whelping can impact nearby seals through flooding dens and wetting baby seals with their wakes. Marine mammals are known to congregate in shallow bays and migrate through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. As shipping traffic increases in this region there will be increased potential for conflict between ships and marine mammals in narrow and geographically restrictive areas. Other ship impacts outlined in this section such as noise impacts, introduction of invasive species and ship emissions are also of concern.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©