Almost three years after a cruise ship ran aground near Kugaaruk in 2018, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s recently filed investigative report found that the vessel’s crew acted inappropriately and that a lack of surveying of Canada’s Arctic Ocean poses significant hazards to ships navigating Northern waters.

“Until the coastal waters surrounding the Canadian Arctic archipelago are surveyed to modern or adequate hydrographic standards, and if alternate mitigation measures are not put in place, there is a persistent risk that vessels will make unforeseen contact with the sea bottom. The (safety) board therefore recommends that the Department of Transport, in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, develops and implements mandatory risk mitigation measures for all passenger vessels operating in Canadian Arctic coastal waters,” the report reads.

In response, Transport Canada stated to Nunavut News that the federal government has already taken actions to promote safe shipping in the Arctic, referring specifically to the 2019 Guidelines for Assessing Ice Operational Risk and the Arctic Shipping Safety and Pollution Prevention Regulations.

“Inherent risks of navigating in remote locations can be mitigated by adopting the best practices as set out in the International Chamber of Shipping Bridge Procedures Guide, which emphasize voyage planning and the importance of proceeding in surveyed and charted waters to the extent possible,” said Cybelle Morin, Transport Canada’s senior Adviser of media relations.

She added that vessels planning a voyage in the Canadian Arctic should continue to comply with the requirements outlined in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention and in the Standard for Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention, abide with their company’s safety management system, and follow their polar water operational manual, developed under the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters.

Cruise ships were banned from Arctic waters in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That prohibition is set to expire at the end of February 2022.

“We look forward to seeing cruise operations return to Canada when it is deemed safe to do so by our public health authorities,” Morin said.

As for the Akademik Ioffe specifically, that vessel has not returned to Canadian waters since the 2018 incident, according to Transport Canada.

In regards to penalties against those responsible for the ship, Morin stated that Transport Canada inspected the Akademik Ioffe to verify that it met regulations to continue sailing after it grounded.

“Transport Canada took appropriate enforcement action and informed the vessel’s authorized representatives that a corrective action plan would be required prior to re-entering Canadian waters and that any future non-compliance would result in greater enforcement actions,” said Morin.

Not up to standards

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s 83-page report released in May determined that the Akademik Ioffe, chartered by Canadian tour company One Ocean Expeditions, ran aground 144 km northwest of Kugaaruk on Aug. 24, 2018 in an area that was “not surveyed to modern or adequate hydrographic standards, and where none of the vessel crew had ever been.”

In addition, the crew was not closely monitoring the situation, which was exacerbated by the low-water depth alarms having been turned off, the report reveals.

The incident resulted in 80.5 litters of fuel oil from the damaged ship leaking into the environment.

No injuries were reported among the 37 crew, 24 expedition staff or 102 passengers, who were transferred to a sister ship. The Akademik Ioffe was eventually refloated.

The report notes that the Office of the Auditor General of Canada published a report from its Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in 2014 recommending that “although it was not reasonable to expect the entire Canadian Arctic to be surveyed to modern standards, it was expected that reliable information for the higher risk areas, where vessel traffic was most prevalent such as approaches to Northern communities, be available.”

That same document noted that the Canadian Hydrographic Service estimated at the time that about one per cent of Canadian Arctic waters are surveyed to modern standards.

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