With ever-increasing activity in the world’s polar regions – both North and South – IMO and several other organisations are getting together to create a mandatory international code for shipping in the regions.
As the ice melts, the Arctic region is becoming more accessible to all types of vessels. With an estimated 22 per cent of the world’s undiscovered, technically recoverable resources lying beyond the Arctic Circle, the energy industry is looking north. Trade routes are also opening up and will allow a shorter passage between certain areas.
This has also become topical for the cruise market. A certain sector of the consumer market is increasingly driven by the adventurous and extreme notion of cruising in the Arctic regions.
The nature of this environment – untouched, remote and wild – makes it as appealing as it does precarious – with respect to both safety and the environment.
Deputy Director General of the Norwegian Maritime Authority, Sigurd Gude, says these extreme conditions create additional challenges for both vessels and crews entering the polar regions.
“Continuous shipping operations in the polar regions create different challenges to those in other parts of the world, for both ship and crew. Apart from significant factors like the cold and remoteness, just consider the light; the requirements for safe operations are very different if it is light 24 hours a day or dark 24 hours a day,” he says.
From guidelines to rules
Most shipping companies are very conscious about the added risks involved in polar shipping and, accordingly, implemented strict safety procedures from an early stage. Several nations also developed their own, causing a fractured regulatory framework.
However, in order to reconcile the various approaches, and partly in reaction to the Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska in 1989, IMO undertook an initiative to regulate polar operations in the early 1990s.
Gude says that, when these guidelines were being revised, Norway, the US and Denmark proposed the development of a mandatory polar code for both the northern and southern polar regions.
“The reason for creating a mandatory code was that any ship traffic would only have international high-sea rules and that there would be no particular requirements for ships operating in polar waters,” he says.
This received a lot of support from other IMO members and the process of developing this code began.
Using the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention as a basis, the scope of the polar code was to address the specific educational, technological and structural requirements of polar shipping. Gude outlines some of the key areas covered by the code.
“The code has rules regarding search and rescue, spills of hazardous materials, and the structure of vessels going into the region, for example whether you have ice class. There are also challenges on the navigation side in these waters, for example understanding different types of ice and its behaviour. The code addresses many of these particular issues,” he says.
The framework of the code is in now in place, but the issues’ complexity and political nature will ensure that the code is a work-in-progress for some time to come.
Gude adds that despite this being a politically charged issue, the various parties have come to the negotiation table ready to compromise.
“This is a politically charged issue with many different viewpoints from nations, as well as organisations. They come from different ‘corners’ but have the same goals, because they realise that it is in the interest of all to reach a compromise and, for the most part, it has been an effective group to work with,” he explains.
Within the cruise industry itself, there are differences of opinion as to what type of polar code is optimal, or whether one is necessary at all. Some, like Arctic cruise line Quark, embrace the development of a polar code with high standards.
Although it does not have a vote on the committee, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has been actively involved in the development of the code. One sensitive issue for many cruise companies is how stringent the structural requirements will be, due to the cost of retrofitting vessels to meet possible regulations. Gude explains the main issues for cruise in the code.
“Firstly, CLIA has been a very positive contributor to the code. The main concern with taking cruise vessels into the polar areas relates to search and rescue standards. For example, whether there should be a cap on the number of guests and how to improve communication infrastructure in the remotest areas. When it comes to technical requirements, I doubt it will be as big a problem as some cruise companies have predicted because it should be quite easy for the vast majority of their fleets to avoid the relevant geographical areas,” he explains.
While he admits it has been a long drawn-out process, Gude says that the inclusiveness of the process has been necessary both from a political point of view and in terms of engaging organisations with the right competence.
“Achieving a comprehensive code is a step-by-step process. It has been decided to look at particular areas of the code piece by piece. IMO has many sub-committees with competence in different areas and you have to deal with each of them individually,” he says.
Gude concludes that it is important to do the necessary work in order to create a good code.
“I strongly believe it is very important to take the necessary time and get a fair and balanced code that the various groups will approve. Despite the abundance of varying interests, the groups have been very good at conducting reasonable discussions. While I think a bad code is better than no code, I really do believe that the code is a good one,” he says.
Text: Damien Devlin