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Shipping companies blame extensive ice, Coast Guard for sealift delays

Impassable sea ice in some Nunavut waters coupled with too few Coast Guard ships has led to sealift delays of up to three weeks this year, according to the heads of sealift companies serving Nunavut.

A Nunavut Sealink and Supply Inc. cargo ship with a Coast Guard escort encounters extensive ice en route to Sanikiluaq in late July. The sealift company's general manager said severe ice cover in some locations and inadequate escorts by the Canadian Coast Guard have resulted in late deliveries and a backlog that could persist until the end of the sealift season in early- to mid-October.

Getting caught up will be a challenge, said Waguih Rayes, general manager of Nunavut Sealink and Supply Inc.

"That worries me a lot... I have nine ships operating and even with that I have a hard time recuperating the time we lost at the beginning of the season (in early July)," he said, acknowledging that many business customers are reliant on timely deliveries to meet their project schedules.

Ships unable to make it to shore at one Nunavut location will sail to another community to deliver cargo and hope to get into the first intended destination on the way back, Rayes explained, adding that there's been "a lot of improvising" taking place this year.

In some places, the ice was so dense that even an icebreaker could not have pushed through, Rayes acknowledged. At other sites, icebreakers could have made the difference, he said.

"The Coast Guard doesn't have the assets to properly support the level of service that we have agreed upon between Coast Guard and industry a long time ago," he said.

Suzanne Paquin, president and CEO of Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping (NEAS), concurred.

"They did not meet their levels of service," she said of the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard has only met its service levels at approximately 45 per cent this season due to abnormally high ice concentrations in some areas as well as other factors such as unplanned maintenance and providing emergency responses, according to Lauren Solski, communications adviser with the Coast Guard.

Only two Coast Guard icebreakers were available to sealift companies in late June and another two became available during the latter stages of July. However, the Coast Guard has recently acquired three medium icebreakers that should allow for more reliable levels of service in the future, Solski added.

"The Canadian Coast Guard is working to extend its operational season in the Arctic over the coming years, providing icebreaking support earlier and later in the season," Solski stated. "Extending the Arctic operational season needs to be balanced with potential impacts on the traditional use of sea ice for community needs, and we are working with Indigenous and coastal communities in the Arctic to build an approach that meets their needs first and foremost."

The Canadian Coast Guard was operational in the Arctic for 21 additional days in the 2017 season, Solski added.

'That's going to be challenging'

Rayes, who's been general manager of NSSI for almost 18 years, recalled making a presentation to a Senate standing committee on fisheries and oceans in 2008 in Iqaluit where he made suggestions relating to Coast Guard service that still have not been heeded today, he said.

"The Coast Guard fleet is aging," he said. "Last year, after the (sealift) season, I was at the Coast Guard office and I asked the question, 'Can you tell me what is your contingency plan?' I never had an answer. Us here, we know, we feel, we understand what essential service means when it pertains to the communities, but it appears that no one else is interested in acknowledging and doing something about it. That is becoming very frustrating."

Paquin said it's difficult to forecast how ice conditions will be in the High Arctic in the coming weeks as cargo ships head farther north. She quickly consulted the most recent ice data available on Aug. 10.

"It's still not open. We have time but it's not open yet. Not good. That's going to be challenging," she said, between pauses. "We'll have to see. It's still early. We're not going to panic today."

These images show high-than-usual ice cover in red and lower volumes of ice in blue. Problem areas include western Davis Strait, outside Frobisher Bay and northeastern Hudson Bay. Overall, however, much of the Arctic experienced a normal to lower-than-normal season for ice cover, according to the Canadian Ice Service.
images courtesy of the Canadian Coast Guard