Chapter 5 Comparative Perspectives on the Development of Canadian Arctic Shipping: Impacts of Climate Change and Globalization

In: Shipping in Inuit Nunangat
Frédéric Lasserre
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Climate change does impact sea ice, with a significant reduction of its extent and thickness. Climate change thus facilitates navigation, without making it easier, and indeed has contributed to the expansion of traffic in the Canadian Arctic, with a fivefold increase since 2000. However, there is a discrepancy between expectations that the melting of sea ice triggered and actual levels of shipping, especially regarding transit volumes. This can be accounted for by the fact that drivers of shipping in the Arctic, especially in Russian waters, are linked to the development of natural resources extraction and the perception that Arctic shipping markets may not readily fit into global strategies adopted by shipping companies. Potential economic drivers of Arctic shipping, extraction and transit, are related to the insertion of the region into globalized markets. With regard to climate change, conditions for the development of shipping in the Canadian and Russian Arctic are increasingly shaped by market, political and legal developments from outside the region, giving credence to the idea that the Arctic is increasingly inserted into the global economy. This chapter analyzes the evolution of Canadian Arctic shipping in the face of these developments.

1 Introduction

Climate change does impact sea ice, with a significant reduction of its extent and thickness. Climate change thus facilitates navigation, without making it easier, and indeed has contributed to the expansion of traffic in the Canadian Arctic,1 with a fivefold increase since 2000. However, there is a discrepancy between expectations that the melting of sea ice triggered and actual levels of shipping, especially regarding transit volumes. This can be accounted for by the fact that drivers of shipping in the Arctic, especially in Russian waters, are linked to the development of natural resources extraction and the perception that Arctic shipping markets may not readily fit into global strategies adopted by shipping companies. Besides transit and resource extraction, a third engine of growth, community resupply, is indeed expanding, but so far companies have increased vessel size rather than the number of voyages. In other words, potential economic drivers of Arctic shipping, extraction and transit, are related to the insertion of the region into globalized markets. With regards to climate change, conditions for the development of shipping in the Canadian and Russian Arctic are increasingly shaped by market, political and legal developments from outside the region, giving credence to the idea that the Arctic is increasingly inserted into the global economy.2 In this chapter, the evolution of Canadian Arctic shipping is compared with trends in the Russian Arctic.

2 Impacts of Climate Change: Navigability

Since 1979, the yearly minimum extent of sea ice in the Arctic has decreased by about 55 percent, from 7.2 million km2 to 3.41 million km2 in 2012, 3.74 million km2 in 2020 and 4.72 million km2 in 2021.3 Several conclusions can be inferred from the non-linear evolution of the September minimal sea ice extent. First, the extent of Arctic sea ice at its minimum is decreasing, and this trend is accelerating since the slope of the regression lines is more pronounced for recent periods until 2020. Second, a significant year-to-year variation is apparent: despite the general declining trend, there are years with more ice than the previous years, which make the year-on-year change unpredictable.

The spatial distribution of the September minimal sea ice (Figure 5.1) is revealing of two facts: first, the Siberian coast is much more ice-free than the Canadian archipelago; and second, despite the general trend towards a shrinking sea ice cover, significant inter-annual variability in sea ice distribution remains, with some areas being open waters some years, but not others.


Extension of Arctic sea ice at its summer minimum, 2010, 2016, 2018 and 2021


Variability of navigability in Canadian Arctic Achipelago channels, especially the Northwest Passage (NWP), is typically more pronounced than in the Northern Sea Route (NSR).4 This makes long-term planning more difficult despite the long-term reduced sea ice trend.5

3 Contrasted Evolution of Traffic

Given this foreseeable future for sea ice in the Arctic, which presents contrasted trends and evolution depending on the region, what can be said about the evolution of Arctic shipping? Traffic volume has grown significantly in the Arctic, both in general6 and along the Northwest Passage and in the Canadian Arctic.7 In the Arctic as a whole, the number of single vessels entering the area increased by 25 percent between 2013 and 2019.8

3.1 Arctic Traffic Expansion due to Natural Resources Extraction

As seen in Tables 5.1 and 5.2, vessel voyages9 are definitely increasing in the Arctic. From 2009 to 2021, traffic multiplied by 1.97 in the Canadian Arctic, and by 1.7 between 2016 and 2020 in the waters of the Northern Sea Route.10


Vessel movements in the Canadian Arctic, number of voyages, NORDREG zone11

2009 2011 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Ship tonnage, million tons (dwt) 1.28 1.39 1.43 1.8 2.79 3.54 4.38 5.16 7.6 14.6
Voyages 225 319 348 302 315 347 416 408 431 345 444
Of which:
Fishing boats 65 136 137 119 129 131 138 139 137 132 134
Cargo or barges 109 126 127 108 120 147 188 197 223 183 289
Of which:
General cargo 23 38 35 32 34 36 50 48 59 41 55
Tanker 23 30 28 25 27 23 24 29 28 31 36
Dry bulk 27 23 27 33 36 53 72 89 106 91 167
Tugs and barges 36 33 36 18 23 35 42 31 30 20 31
Pleasure craft 12 15 32 30 23 22 32 17 19 2 1
Cruise/passenger 11 11 17 11 18 20 19 21 24 0 0
Government vessels (icebreakers, navy) 21 20 17 23 16 20 22 18 20 21 11
Research vessels 7 11 20 10 9 6 13 13 8 4 3
Others 3 3 6 3 3 6



Vessel movements in NSR waters, number of voyages

2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Volume transported, million metric tons 7.265 10.713 20.18 31.53 32.97 34.85
Voyages in NSR waters 1,705 1,908 2,022 2,694 2,905 3,227
Of which:
Tanker 477 653 686 799 750 705
LNG tanker 13 225 507 510 528
General cargo nd nd nd nd 49 800
Bulk 519 515 422 546 710 94
Container 169 156 150 171 171 177
Icebreaker 58 101 232 231 220 354
Supply 57 104 169 264 156
Research 91 87 85 93 114 138


The years 2020 and 2021 were unusual because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which either affected mining12 or triggered a ban on cruise shipping in Canada, for instance. In the Canadian Arctic, 2020 is marked by a decrease in traffic (20 percent), largely attributable to the drop in traffic of pleasure craft and cruise ships, which were banned from entry due to the pandemic. The number of merchant ships has decreased, but the total tonnage has increased, an indication of the arrival of larger ships to serve operating mining sites like Mary River on Baffin Island or Raglan and Jilin Jien in northern Quebec. For 2021, the ban on tourism-related traffic (cruising and yachting) was still enforced,13 but fishing traffic recovered while commercial traffic exploded, increasing 43.5 percent from 2020 and 19.7 percent above 2019 figures.

Despite the general and substantial increase in vessel traffic observed in the two areas, contrasting trends can be observed from these figures. In the Canadian Arctic, in terms of number of voyages, fishing vessels experienced a steady expansion between 2009 and 2011, going from 65 to 136 voyages, but fishing traffic has since stalled. The increase in traffic was due to cargo ships activity (+145 percent from 2009 to 2021), of which dry bulk experienced the largest expansion (+518.5 percent), driven by mining activities, and general cargo (+139.1 percent), driven by community resupply. Part of community resupply is also performed by barges pushed by tugs, from Hay River on the Great Slave Lake and then down the Mackenzie River, or from the port of Moosonee to northern Ontario communities. Significant growth in tonnage is largely due to the expansion of bulk cargo traffic, growing from 1.28 million dwt in 2011 to 14.6 million dwt in 2021 (+1,040.6 percent).

Bulk traffic has benefited from the exploitation of Arctic and Subarctic mines, such as Voisey’s Bay (Labrador), Raglan and Canadian Royalties/Jilin Jien (Quebec), and Mary River (Baffin Island, Nunavut). This expanding traffic volume has largely compensated for the dwindling traffic to and from Churchill since the port closed down in 2016 before reopening in 2019 (there were only 4 voyages of grain-carrying bulk vessels in 2019 and 3 in 2020); modernization of the rail tracks led the port to close down in 2021 until 2023.14 For instance, Baffinland Iron Mines shipped 920,000 tons of ore from its mine in Mary River through its port of Milne Inlet in the first year of activity in 2015, then 4.1 million tons in 2017,15 5.1 million tons in 201816 and 5.5 million tons in 2020.17 The company intends to eventually reach an annual volume of 12 million tons in the next few years, and eventually 30 million tons.18 Other active gold mines north of Rankin Inlet also generate traffic related to the logistics of mining operations. In the Canadian Archipelago, Fednav operates ice-strengthened Polar Class 4 vessels (Arctic, Umiak, Nunavik, Arvik) capable of navigating in winter, servicing the two Deception Bay mines in northern Quebec. The company may develop a business model in partnership with mining companies for year-round shipping to Deception Bay and Milne Inlet (operational) as well as Steensby Inlet (projected). The logistics of mining activities are dominant in terms of tonnage in the Canadian Arctic: in 2020, the capacity of bulk carriers servicing mines (measured in cumulated vessel dwt), at 6.1 Mt, accounted for 77.3 percent of the tonnage capacity of traffic (measured in dwt); in 2021, at 12,32 Mt, it accounted for 84.4 percent. Large, powerful dry bulk carriers transport ore from the maritime terminal built to service the mines: the construction of deep-water docks is required for base-metal mines that ship large quantities of ore, as is the case at Milne Inlet (Mary River) and Deception Bay (Raglan and Jilin Jien).

In Russia, tanker traffic increased 147.8 percent between 2016 and 2021. LNG tanker traffic went from nil to 528 voyages, and icebreaker voyages increased 510 percent. Tanker traffic experienced a sustained growth due to the oil and gas developments in the Kara Sea (Prirazlomoye and Varandey oil terminals)19 and on the Yamal peninsula and Ob Bay, with Sabetta and Novy Port the main terminals and the impending opening of an Arctic LNG 2 terminal.20 The scheduled opening of new oil fields (Vankor in particular) in the Taymyr peninsula, east of the Yenisei delta, should contribute to the expansion of traffic: the Vankor field alone should produce 30 million tons from 2024. With the programmed opening of coal, lead and zinc mines, and more ore shipments from the port of Murmansk, bulk traffic should grow fast in the Russian Arctic as well.21 Fishing, concentrated in the Barents and Bering Seas, as well as passenger traffic, do not appear in these statistics (25 voyages for fishing in 2021 and 1 voyage for passenger vessels).

It is apparent that the main driver for the expansion of shipping in both the NWP and the NSR is natural resources exploitation, including mining, oil and gas, and fishing. Resource extraction, in particular, accounts for the expansion of traffic: more and bigger ships account for a rapid increase in transported tonnage, especially along the NSR where resource extraction is more active than in Arctic Canada.22 Presently there is more activity in the oil and gas sector along the NSR, whereas mining is the leading extractive sector in the Canadian Arctic. Community resupply in Canadian waters also experienced a sustained growth, with a temporary dip in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

3.2 Transit Traffic Remains Weak along Arctic Passages

Contrary to popular belief and widespread expectations, however, transit traffic remains very limited along Arctic passages in Canada and Russia. Despite the ongoing melting of sea ice, transit traffic remains rather limited along the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route, here again for different reasons.23 In both cases, there is a definite trend towards expansion, but with differentiated histories and composition (Tables 5.3 and 5.4). Transit numbers across the Northwest Passage were higher at the beginning of the period, experienced growth until 2012, witnessed a moderate decline, expanded again until 2017, then collapsed in 2018, only to recover in 2019 and then collapse because of the ban on cruise and pleasure craft transits. Transit in the NWP was largely composed of pleasure boats as opposed to between zero and two commercial vessels. This may be about to change: 3 transits were made by cargo vessels in 2019, 5 in 2020 and 3 in 2021. Vessels from the Dutch shipping company Royal Wagenborg accounted for 2 of the transits in 2019, all 5 in 2020 and all 3 in 2021. The company openly advertises the voyages, hinting it may attempt to develop this market in the future.24 As far as cargo vessels are concerned, tankers and bulkers were prevalent among the few transits before 2017; now general cargo vessels dominate. It is interesting to note that the expansion of mining in the Canadian Arctic does not support transit expansion, despite the fact ore is at times delivered to China. In 2014, a Fednav vessel transited the NWP to deliver nickel ore to China from the Raglan mine; however, in 2018 (two transits), in 2019 (one transit) and again in 2021 (one transit), shipments of iron ore from the Mary River mine to China transited across the NSR.25 In 2013, the Baffinland CEO made it clear that the company would not use the NWP for transit to Asia;26 the company somewhat softened its stance in 2019, but apparently has yet to use what it considers an “alternative shipping route.”27


Transit traffic along the Northwest Passage, 2006–2021

Vessel type 2006 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Icebreaker 2 2 2 2 2 4 3 2 2 1 1 1
Cruise 2 4 2 2 4 2 3 3 0 5 0
Pleasure boat 12 13 22 14 10 15 22 2 13 1
Tug 1 1 2 3 1 1
Cargo ship 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 2 0 3 5 3
Of which:
Bulk 1 1 1
Tanker 1 1 1
General cargo 1 1 3 4 3
Research 1 1 1 1 1
Other 1 4 1
Total 6 19 18 30 22 17 23 33 5 23 7 5



Transit traffic along the NSR, 2006–2021

2008 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Icebreaker 2 3 2 2 1 2 1 2
Government ship 1 0 1 1 3 1
Cruise 1 1 0 1 3 1 1 1 1
Tug, supply vessel 1 4 4 5 1 1 4 4 1 2 5
Cargo ship 2 6 31 38 64 24 15 11 24 23 32 51 84
Of which :
Bulk 2 5 10 16 1 2 3 16 28
Tanker 3 17 27 33 14 2 5 3 9 7 8
General cargo 2 14 8 4 9 11 12 14 26 36
Container 1 1 1 2 1
Reefer 6 1 1 4 2 3 2 5 3
Heavy lift 2 1 1 5 3 8
Research 2 2 0 2 0 0 2
Fishing 1 2 1 3 5
Total official transit 3 13 41 46 71 31 18 19 27 27 37 64 85
Volume transported, million metric tons 0.11 0.82 1.26 1.18 0.27 0.04 0.21 0.19 0.490 0.697 1.281 2.027
Total volume handled in the NSR, million metric tons 2.219 2.085 3.225 3.75 3.914 3.982 5.432 7.265 10.73 20.18 31.53 32.97 34.85


Figures show that both in terms of voyages and tonnage, transit represents a small share of total traffic along the NSR, despite the recent increase in transit voyages and tonnage since 2018, with transit tonnage increasing to 1.2 Mt in 2020 and 2 Mt in 2021. In transit traffic along the NSR, cargo vessels are more diversified than in the NWP; between 2010 and 2014, tankers dominated transits, with general cargo vessels dominating since 2015. Bulkers were a significant share of vessels in 2012, 2013 and again in 2020 and 2021. As far as tonnage is concerned, bulkers represented the largest component of transit in 2020, with 1.004 Mt of iron ore shipped from Murmansk (78.4 percent) being largely responsible for the rapid expansion of transit that year. In 2019, crude oil represented 43.3 percent of transiting cargo and iron ore 21.5 percent. It is noteworthy that these shipments of iron ore from Murmansk represent transit from an Arctic port and thus can be considered as Arctic destinational traffic,28 a methodological point discussed above.

Transit traffic along the NSR was initially very modest. It expanded to a high of 71 voyages in 2012, collapsed to 18 in 2014, and recovered gradually to 37 in 2019 and 74 in 2021. It may be that the increase will be an ongoing process, but that does not hide the fact that transit traffic remains modest, especially when compared to destinational traffic along the NSR, and when compared to transit traffic along major straits or canals like Malacca, Suez or Panama.29 This transit level is clearly out of step with media forecasts announcing the advent of heavy traffic along Arctic routes.30

The composition of this traffic also differs by region. Commercial cargo ships represent the largest share of transit traffic along the NSR, whereas transit along the NWP is largely composed of pleasure boats, with commercial vessels comprising between zero and two units (except for five in 2019). One element that explains this weak interest in transit traffic along the NWP is a higher ice concentration in summer,31 the absence of promotion of the NWP as opposed to a very proactive stance in Russia, and a higher level of equipment and infrastructure along the NSR, including ports that could harbor a damaged ship.32 Icebreaker support also varies greatly, with Canada having only nine Arctic-capable icebreakers as opposed to Russia’s five nuclear and 37 diesel icebreakers.33

This comparison between total and transit traffic underlines the fact that destinational traffic (ships going to the Arctic, stopping there to perform an economic task and then sailing back) remains the driving force in Arctic shipping along the NSR, but all the more so in the NWP where commercial transit was until recently very low and still is limited. This destinational traffic is fueled by the servicing of local communities. However, traffic is growing significantly due to the expanding exploration for and exploitation of natural resources, including mining, oil and gas, and fishing. Natural resources extraction is by far the strongest driver in Arctic shipping, whether in the Russian Arctic, or the Canadian Arctic with mining,34 but less so in Greenlandic waters since oil and gas companies have lost interest in exploiting Greenland’s natural resources.35

While some natural resource discoveries are promising in Alaska, Canada and Russia, the large-scale development and operation of these projects remains uncertain in North America, whereas Siberian projects are benefiting from the Russian government’s willingness to push for the rapid expansion of extraction of resources. These ventures remain risky, since operating costs are high, but also because the industry remains very sensitive to world prices.36 The high volatility that marked 2020, between the pandemic and price wars, has had a definite impact on current projects, and it remains to be seen what the impact will be in the long term. Nevertheless, the moderate but ongoing expansion of cargo transit traffic and the strong expansion of destinational traffic fueled by resource extraction attest to the influence of the ongoing globalization of the Arctic, and Arctic economic expansion that is largely fueled by markets from outside the region. From that perspective, it will be interesting to observe to what extent the war in the Ukraine will impact NSR shipping.

4 Expansion of Foreign Shipping?

An examination of the share of vessels operated by foreign shipping companies gives useful information regarding the internationalization of traffic in Canadian and Russian Arctic waters.

In a 2018 legislative move that appeared to contradict Moscow’s desire to promote Arctic shipping, a Russian regulation banned foreign-flagged oil and gas carriers from the NSR. A new decree in 2019 allowed foreign-owned carriers like Teekay, Mitsui, China Shipping or Dynagas to keep operating oil or LNG carriers registered until the end of 2021.37 Observers wondered to what extent the move would damage Russian efforts to promote foreign use of the NSR, despite the reported rising interest of foreign shipping companies, in particular Asian companies. It turns out that the share of voyages operated by foreign shipping companies appears to be moderately growing, with a significant share of 27.92 percent (Table 5.5). As far as transits are concerned, the recent expansion described above seems to be due to foreign shipping companies, whose share went from 37.84 percent in 2019 to 87.84 percent in 2021, while the share of Asian companies did expand, but more moderately, from 21.62 to 25.68 percent.38


Share of voyages performed by commercial vessels operated by foreign companies in Russian Arctic waters

NSR, transit traffic (%) NSR, total traffic (%)
2019 2020 2021 2019 2020
Foreign companies 37.84 65.63 87.84 23.53 27.92
Asian companies 21.62 37.5 25.68 7.83 9.6


In the Canadian archipelago, all commercial transits were performed by European foreign shipping companies in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Given the prevalence of pleasure craft in transit traffic in Canadian waters up to 2020, it is not very useful to compare foreign or domestic pleasure craft with foreign commercial vessels. What is interesting, however, is the rising share of foreign companies in total traffic in Canadian Arctic waters (Table 5.6).


Share of voyages performed by commercial vessels operated by foreign companies in Canadian Arctic waters

2018 2019 2020 2021
Foreign companies 18.14 22.74 26.67 39.41
Asian companies 1.2 6.03 7 10.36


It appears that, contrary to the picture that prevailed a few years ago, traffic in the Canadian Arctic is gradually becoming globalized as foreign shipping companies are increasing their share of voyages, particularly in the mining market segment. Most of these vessels are bunkers coming to the Canadian Arctic to service mining operations. The share of foreign companies in total voyages grew from 18.14 to 39.41 percent from 2018 to 2021, and the share of Asian companies from 1.2 to 10.36 percent. This attests to the developing internationalization of shipping in the Canadian archipelago, a feature that will probably keep developing over the next few years with the ongoing development of new mining sites serviced by sea transportation.39

4.1 Potentially Counterproductive Promotion of the NSR by Russia

There are contrasted approaches between Canada and Russia as to how to adapt or take advantage of this insertion of the Arctic into the global economy. Canadian authorities have taken a low-profile approach regarding the would-be advantages of transit shipping along the NWP: Transport Canada has never publicly advertised the Passage among shipping companies, especially as ice has remained present in the Northwest Passage in recent years.40 This low-profile approach is in contrast with the Russian approach of highlighting the benefits of transiting through the NSR as opposed to using the Suez Canal, especially after a container ship, the Ever Given, blocked the canal in March 2021. Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, responsible since 2018 for the management of operations along the NSR, “made big fun of the trouble for global shipping caused by the wedged cargo ship in the Suez Canal” with a view to depicting transit of the NSR as a profitable alternative.41 This public relations push was met with skepticism by the shipping industry,42 all the more so after more than 20 cargo ships were stuck in early winter ice for weeks in November 2021 in the eastern part of the NSR with Rosatomflot unable to free them quickly.43 This severely damaged the corporation’s credibility and the reliability of being able to navigate the NSR late in the season.44 This episode should remind shipping companies that, despite the long-term trend towards a melting sea ice cover, significant inter-annual variability remains regarding the extent and rhythm of the melt and refreeze.

4.2 A New Business Model: The Advent of Transshipment Hubs?

Russian officials are well aware of the reluctance of shipping companies to develop transit traffic along the NSR, let alone the NWP. Shorter routes are proving to be a poor incentive when considering the difficulties of Arctic shipping. Thus, a new business model is gradually emerging based on regular shipping routes and classic vessels with Arctic transshipment hubs and high-ice class shuttle vessels that could offer year-round service. The advantage of this business model rests in the possibility for shipping companies to benefit from year around service and thus regular service permitting (in theory) just-in-time delivery without having to invest in costly high-ice class ships. This model implies the construction of sets of port hubs, one at each entrance of the Arctic routes, and relies on the advantage of shorter routes outweighing the need for two transshipments.

Arctic transshipment hub projects have blossomed in recent year across the Arctic, with proposed sites in Iceland (Finnafjord), Norway (Kirkenes), Russia (Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, and Indiga on the Atlantic and Vladivostok, Zarubino and Petropavlovsk on the Pacific), Japan (Tomakomai), South Korea (Busan), Alaska (Nome), Maine (Portland), Greenland (Nuuk), France (St-Pierre, south of Newfoundland), and Canada (Halifax, St Anthony, Churchill, Iqaluit, Nanisivik and Qikiqtarjuaq).45 It is unlikely, given the required investments in port infrastructure and shuttle vessels, that all these projected Arctic hubs will ever be built. Some projects definitely appear to be ahead in the developing competition between all these projects, with the support of local and national authorities. Other projects have had setbacks, like Kirkenes, which suffered a major blow when the projected railway between Kirkenes and Rovaniemi that would have connected the port with the European railway network was blocked by the Lapland Regional Council.46 Several other projects have not even received the formal approval of regional authorities.

In this struggle to establish Arctic transshipment hubs, Russia definitely appears to have the lead. It has already experimented with transshipment of oil and gas in Murmansk.47 The Russian government seems willing to set up and subsidize a dedicated container shuttle company between Murmansk and Kamchatka, very likely Petropavlovsk or Vladivostok. It may even subsidize directly foreign shipping companies that opt to use this new shuttle service48 along a planned Northern Sea Transport Corridor.49 Further, construction for the expansion of the port of Murmansk in under way with the Lavna terminal being dedicated to the planned expansion of coal exports as well as containers.50 With Arctic ports already in place facing the Atlantic and the Pacific, and with Moscow’s willingness to set up the shuttle company, there may be little room for hub projects along the NWP, which already suffers from a higher ice concentration. The port of Iqaluit, which is about to be finished, is merely a wharf with little equipment.51 The idea of building a port in Qikiqtarjuaq stemmed from the desire to support the fishing industry,52 but also from the vision of developing a “little Singapore of the Arctic” with the help of “Chinese investors”53 whose identity remains elusive.54 This project is reportedly stalled, especially as Chinese investors may not be welcome now in the context of tense Sino-Canadian relations. Senator Patterson recently included the Qikiqtarjuaq port in his budget recommendations for Nunavut’s development,55 but the government does not seem to have followed suit.56 Halifax may be better positioned as it boasts functioning infrastructure and a solid reputation, but the Arctic hub project seems preliminary, as is the case for St Anthony in Newfoundland.57

5 Environmental Pressures

There appears to be momentum to adopt tighter environmental measures regarding Arctic commercial shipping, although there are differences in the way Canadian and Russian authorities enforce environmental regulations. A general framework has been adopted internationally with the entry into force of the Polar Code in 2017.58 With a view to limiting pollution and black carbon emission that accelerate the melting of sea ice, in June 2021 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) banned the use and carriage for use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in Arctic waters after 2024. However, Arctic States were authorized to waive the ban for ships flying their own flag while traveling in their domestic waters until 1 July 2029, a crucial concession to secure Russia’s support.59 The Canadian shipping company NEAS criticized the then projected HFO ban arguing that it would have a limited impact on emissions given the low traffic in the Canadian Arctic, but a high impact on operational costs and thus on communities.60 However, the Canadian government indicated that it would nevertheless support the ban and would introduce in 2021 a proposal to address the cost impacts on northern communities.61 This proposal remains to be made public.

When it comes to enforcement of shipping regulations, both Canada and Russia appear willing to adopt more stringent national regulations than the Polar Code provisions,62 a position that has attracted little criticism from the shipping industry.63 However, with a view to promoting the development of commercial shipping, Russian authorities unveiled their intention to soften national regulations and allow lower ice-class vessels to navigate along the NSR.64 This latter move was criticized as underlining Moscow’s desire to give priority to commercial considerations over safety,65 especially in light of several safety incidents.66 The new rules were made public in 2020.67 Safety violations and a debatable enforcement of rules points to the larger issue of a rivalry for regulatory control over the NSR between Rosatom and the Ministry of Transportation within the framework of the Kremlin’s push for a fast increase in cargo traffic.68 Canadian authorities appear to be going the opposite direction with no traffic objectives, no promotion of shipping along the NWP, and the gradual definition and implementation of northern low-impact shipping corridors that would not be mandatory but would be used as preferred shipping routes and as a framework to guide future investments to support marine navigation safety.69 Russian authorities have designated vessel traffic systems only in the Kara Strait and the Bering Strait in cooperation with the United States.70

Citing environmental concerns due to climate change and the disturbance to ecosystems as a result of the melting of sea ice, non-governmental organizations (NGO s) are pressuring shipping companies and manufacturers to rule out the option of Arctic shipping. Notably, Ocean Conservancy initiated the Arctic Shipping Corporate Pledge whereby companies formally promise never to use Arctic sealanes for transport of their products. Launched in 2019,71 the pledge has been signed by well-known clothes manufacturers like Nike, Columbia Sportswear, Ralph Lauren, Puma, Gap, H&M, Allbirds; logistics operators and forwarders like EV Cargo, Hillebrand, Li & Fung and Kuehne & Nagel, and five shipping companies, CMA-CGM, MSC, Hapag Lloyd, Evergreen and Hudson Shipping.72 No further shipping company has signed since 2019 and all but Hudson are container shipping companies that are known not to consider the Arctic as a credible sealane.73 The momentum Ocean Conservancy hoped to garner is thus limited, despite MSC publicly renewing its pledge in 2021,74 inasmuch there have been no further signatories and those who are signatories really have not surrendered anything they could hope to benefit from.

6 Conclusion

The shipping market in the Arctic has been long dominated by community resupply and modest fishing activity. With increasing impacts from climate change and renewed interest in natural resources extraction, actively supported by the federal state in Russia or pulled by market forces in Norway, Greenland and in the North American Arctic, the picture of shipping is transforming in the Arctic. Similarities, but also major differences, have emerged between the Canadian and the Russian situations.

In Canada, pleasure craft and cruise ships dominated the gradually expanding transit traffic before being halted by public health measures put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Increased commercial transit traffic could be in the making with the initiatives of the Dutch shipping company Wagenborg. In Russia, transit voyages, pushed by the Russian government, represent modest but expanding commercial activity where foreign shipping companies are active, contrary to past transit traffic that was largely composed of Russian vessels to or from Murmansk.

General traffic is expanding in both the Canadian and the Russian Arctic, albeit with more in the Russian Arctic. Both regions are witnessing the expansion of traffic generated by natural resources extraction and increased participation of foreign shipping companies, attesting to the accelerating globalization of economic activity in the Arctic.

There are major differences between the Canadian and the Russian shipping portraits. Both States welcomed and adopted the Polar Code in 2017, and both have been pressured by NGO s and the IMO to adopt tighter environmental regulations, notably through the gradual ban of HFO. However, there seems to be the temptation in Russia to ease regulations with a view to facilitating the development of commercial traffic, whereas Canada tries to frame shipping activities through the definition of low-impact shipping corridors. This is consistent with the efforts in Russia to promote and advertise shipping in the Russian Arctic, notably through the development of an alternate business model of transshipment hubs. This model is also discussed in Canada, but it remains at very preliminary stages when compared to Russia, Iceland or Norway.

Shipping is developing in the Canadian Arctic, driven by external market forces and partly shaped by international political forces. However, it remains much more modest than in the Russian Arctic. There is a political choice to be made: is the Canadian government satisfied with the status quo, which will probably witness a gradual expansion of traffic driven by resource exploitation and international shipping markets, or, subject to agreement with Inuit communities, does it want to promote traffic, whether through communications, improved services to shipping, or construction of harbors for transshipment and provision of havens for crippled vessels? In all cases, the upward pressure of traffic imposes the need to develop the capacity to manage and control traffic in Arctic waters.


The literature abounds with diverse definitions of the Arctic. In this chapter, largely relying on traffic figures provided under the Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone Regulations (NORDREG) (SOR/2010-127), it is NORDREG’s definition of Canadian Arctic waters that was adopted: north of 60°N in the Labrador Sea and Baffin Bay on the Canadian side of the maritime border with Greenland; the whole of Ungava and Hudson bays; then landward to the Arctic Circle but encompassing the entire Canadian Archipelago up to 200 nautical miles. The Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (RSC 1985, c A-12) definition comprises waters north of 60°N, thus excluding Ungava and Hudson bays. With regard to the figures provided by NORDREG for Canadian marine traffic, it must be mentioned that vessels 300 gross tons and less are not required to report. Several, for security reasons, do report as they have automatic identification system (AIS) equipment on board, but it may be that some small vessels do not appear in official figures.


Matthias Finger and Lassi Heininen (eds), The GlobalArctic Handbook (Cham: Springer, 2019); Frédéric Lasserre, “L’essor des Activités Économiques en Arctique : Impact des Changements Climatiques et de la Mondialisation,” Belgéo, Revue Belge de Géographie 1 (2021),


National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC), “Arctic Sea Ice at Highest Minimum Since 2014),” Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis, 22 September 2021,, accessed 3 October 2021.


Penelope M. Wagner et al., “Sea-Ice Information and Forecast Needs for Industry Maritime Stakeholders,” Polar Geography 43(2–3) (2020): 160–187.


Nadine Blacquière, Assistant Director Operations, Desgagnés Transarctik, personal communication, Montreal, 17 February 2018; Alexis Dorais, Assistant Manager, Arctic Operations and Ice Services, Fednav, personal communication, Montreal, 10 March 2021; Suzanne Paquin, President and Chief Executive Officer, NEAS, personal communication, Montreal, 23 January 2018; Rym Msadek et al., “Prévoir les variations saisonnières de la glace de mer arctique et leurs impacts sur le climat,” La Météorologie 111 (2020): 24–33.


Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group (PAME), The Increase In Arctic Shipping 2013–2019. Arctic Shipping Status Report (ASSR) #1 (Akureyri: Arctic Council, 2020),


PAME, Shipping in the Northwest Passage: Comparing 2013 with 2019. Arctic Shipping Status Report (ASSR) #3 (Akureyri: Arctic Council, 2021),


PAME (n 6).


A voyage is the movement of a vessel in the NORDREG zone, between its entry point and its exit point.


The Northern Sea Route comprises Russian Arctic waters between the Kara Gate and the Bering Strait. Thus, traffic in the Barents Sea is not included in NSR figures, nor is traffic in Russia’s Arctic Pacific waters.


The author would like to express gratitude to NORDREG and XST Xpert Solutions Technologiques Inc. for their cooperation in the framing of this research.


Magali Vullierme, “Arctic Mines Facing COVID-19: Global Pandemic, Specific Strategies,” Regards Géopolitiques 7(1) (2021): 18–25,


The only pleasure craft voyaging in the Canadian Arctic in 2021 was a Chinese craft, Zhai Mo 1, which was not authorized to enter Canadian waters. Similarly, in 2020 the New Zealand Kiwi Roa pleasure craft entered the NORDREG zone without clearance and transited the NWP (NORDREG database).


Glen Hallick, “Port of Churchill will close for two years”, Western Investor, 12 November 2021,


“Baffinland Iron Mines Ships Record Tonnage in 2017,” Maritime Magazine 87 (2018): 98–99.


Christopher Debicki, “Rapid Expansion of Mary River Mine Could Undermine Inuit Economic Benefit,” Oceans North, 1 March 2019,


Baffinland, “Baffinland Iron Mines 2020 Annual Report to the Nunavut Impact Review Board,” 6 May 2021,


Id.; David Venn, “Baffinland Still Plans to Move Forward with Steensby Inlet Route,” Nunatsiaq News, 1 November 2021,


S Аgarcov, S Kozmenko and A Teslya, “Organizing an Oil Transportation System in the Arctic,” IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 434 (2020): 012011,


Atle Staalesen, “Big Oil Comes to Icy Arctic Bay,” The Barents Observer, 17 December 2018,; E Katysheva, “The Role of the Russian Arctic Gas Industry in the Northern Sea Route Development,” IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 539 (2020): 012075,


Nickel ore is shipped in containers from the port of Dudinka, thus the apparently high container traffic in fact reflects shipments of mineral and metallurgical semi-transformed products, in addition to limited reefer shipments of fish from Kamchatka to Arkhangelsk and St. Petersburg.


Frédéric Lasserre and Pauline Pic, “Exploitation des ressources naturelles dans l’Arctique. Une évolution contrastée dans les soubresauts du marché mondial,” Études du CQEG 3, 2021,


A methodological note is necessary here. The term transit is interpreted differently by the various administrations that collect and publish figures describing transit along Arctic passages. In Canada, figures are collected by the Canadian Coast Guard section responsible for the enforcement of NORDREG. The definition used by NORDREG for transit is a movement between Baffin Bay to the Beaufort Sea. Robert Headland and his team at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) use a definition whereby transits are counted between the Labrador Sea and Bering Strait. This difference does impact figures since a vessel servicing the community of Inuvik from Montreal will be counted as a transit by NORDREG, but not by the Scott Polar Research Institute. This is why the SPRI counts 32 transits in 2017 (33 for NORDREG), and 3 in 2018 (5 for NORDREG) for instance. In Russia, figures are collected by the Northern Sea Route Administration (NSRA), then formatted and published by the Center for High North Logistics (CHNL), a private association and therefore not an official Russian administration. CHNL bases its figures on the NSRA definition of transit, which is a voyage between the Bering Strait and the Kara Gate. Thus, a ship from Kamchatka to Murmansk will be counted a transit by CHNL despite the fact the ship is still in Russian Arctic waters. Other voyages, like those carried out in 2009 by heavy lift vessels Beluga Foresight and Beluga Fraternity from South Korea are counted as transits by CHNL despite the fact they unloaded their cargo at Yamburg before proceeding to Germany, thus making their voyages destinational. On these methodological issues, see Frédéric Lasserre and Olga Alexeeva, “Analysis of Maritime Transit Trends in the Arctic Passages,” in International Law and Politics of the Arctic Ocean: Essays in Honour of Donat Pharand, eds., Suzanne Lalonde and Ted L McDorman (Leiden: Brill Academic, 2015), 180–193; Frédéric Lasserre et al., “Compared Transit Traffic Analysis Along the NSR and the NWP,” in Arctic Shipping. Climate Change, Commercial Traffic and Port Development, eds., Frédéric Lasserre and Olivier Faury (London: Routledge, 2019), 71–93. This chapter uses the official NORDREG figures and semi-official CHNL figures.


“Wagenborg is Increasingly Knocking on the Door of the North Pole,” Wagenborg, 2019.; “Polar Season 2020 Closed Successfully after Five North West Passages,” Wagenborg, 9 November 2020,


Leo Ryan, “Record Iron Ore Shipments from Canadian Arctic to Europe-Asia,” AJoT, 28 November 2018,; Atle Staalesen, “As Ice Shrinks to Year’s Low, a Powerful Fleet of Tankers Sail Arctic Route to Asia,” The Barents Observer, 3 October 2019,; Atle Staalesen, “Brand New Bulk Carrier Brings North Canadian Ore to China Via Arctic Route,” The Barents Observer, 25 October 2021,


Paul Waldie, “Baffinland CEO Says No to Shipping Ore through Northwest Passage,” The Globe & Mail, 17 October 2013,


Elaine Anselmi, “Baffinland Clarifies Northwest Passage Shipping Plans,” Nunatsiaq News, 26 September 2019,


Destinational traffic, as opposed to transit traffic where ships are merely transiting and not stopping, represents vessels that go to an Arctic destination, stop over to load or unload or perform an economic activity, then leave to another destination. By stopping over they place themselves under the State of the port legislation.


Frédéric Lasserre and Pierre-Louis Têtu, “The Geopolitics of Transportation in the Melting Arctic,” in A Research Agenda for Environmental Geopolitics, ed., Shannon O’Lear (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2020), 105–120.


Frédéric Lasserre et al., “Polar Seaways? Maritime Transport in the Arctic: An Analysis of Shipowners’ Intentions II,” Journal of Transport Geography 57(2016):105–114; Jean-François Doyon et al., “Perceptions et stratégies de l’industrie maritime de vrac relativement à l’ouverture des passages arctiques,” Géotransports 8 (2017): 5–22.


NSIDC (n 3); National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), “Ice Persists in the Northwest Passage,” Earth Observatory, 22 August 2021,


Lasserre et al. 2016 (n 30); Doyon et al. (n 30).


See chapter by Choi in this volume.


Oil exploration is halted in Canada because of the moratorium decided in 2016.


Lasserre and Pic (n 22).


Lasserre 2021 (n 2).


Malte Humpert, “Novatek Allowed to Operate Foreign LNG Carriers on Northern Sea Route,” High North News, 21 March 21 2019,


In these statistics, joint ventures like Teekay/China Shipping are counted as Asian shipping companies despite the other partner being North American.


Frédéric Lasserre, “Canadian Arctic Marine Transportation Issues, Opportunities and Challenges,” The School of Public Policy Publications (University of Calgary) 15:6 (February 2022).


NASA (n 31); Frédéric Lasserre, “Shipping in the Arctic: Is Climate Change a Game Changer?,” in Towards a Sustainable Arctic: International Security, Climate Change and Green Shipping, eds., Michael Goodsite and Niklas Swanström (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2022 forthcoming).


Thomas Nilsen, “Making Fun of Suez Traffic Jam, Rosatom Promotes Russia’s Arctic route as an Alternative,” The Barents Observer, 25 March 25 2021,


Polina Leganger Bronder, “Russia’s Northern Sea Route Push is Met with Scepticism,” The Barents Observer, 5 April 2021,


Atle Staalesen, “Two Icebreakers Are on the Way to Rescue Ice-Locked Ships on Northern Sea Route,” The Barents Observer, 10 November 2021,; Atle Staalesen, “Ice-Locked Arctic Towns Might Not Get Needed Supplies,” The Barents Observer, 24 November 2021,


Malte Humpert, “Early Winter Freeze Traps Ships in Arctic Ice, Highlighting Weak Safety Regime,” High North News, 26 November 2021,


Alexandra Cyr, Les projets de hubs de transbordement arctiques, Études du CQEG no5 (Conseil québécois d’études géoplitiques, 2021),


Thomas Nilsen, “Lapland Regional Council Rejects Arctic Railway,” The Barents Observer, 17 May 2021,


Lasserre and Têtu (n 29).


Malte Humpert, “Proposed Russian State-Owned Shipping Operator to Subsidize Container Shipping in Arctic,” High North News, 23 October 2019,; Atle Staalesen, “Moscow Mulls Subsidies for shippers sailing Northern Sea Route,” The Barents Observer, 3 September 2021,


Atle Staalesen, “Russian Arctic Shipping Could Follow This New Route,” The Barents Observer, 19 May 2020,


Thomas Nilsen, “Construction Resumes at Murmansk Transport Hub,” The Barents Observer, 20 September 2021,


Lasserre 2022 (n 39).


“Qikiqtaaluk Deep Sea Port,” Qikiqtaaluk Corporation,


Sima Sahar Zerehi, “Nunavut Hamlet Seeks Chinese Investors to Build Dream Port,” CBC News, 30 August 2016,


Nadine Blacquière, Assistant Director Operations, Desgagnés Transarctik, personal communication, Montreal, 24 February 2021.


Mélanie Ritchot, “Nunavut Economy Should Depend Less on Southern Labour, Says Patterson,” Nunatsiaq News, 8 February 2021,


Lasserre 2022 (n 39).


Cyr (n 45).


International Code of Safety for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code), IMO Res MSC.385(94) (21 November 2014) and IMO Res MEPC.264 (15 May 2015) (both in force 1 January 2017); Amendments to the International Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974, IMO Res MSC.386(94) (21 November 2014, in force 1 January 2017); Amendments to MARPOL Annexes I, II, IV and V, IMO Res MEPC.265(68) (15 May 2014, in force 1 January 2017).


Malte Humpert, “IMO Moves Forward with Ban of Arctic HFO but Exempts Some Vessels Until 2029,” High North News, 24 February 2020,; Reuters, “UN Adopts Ban on Heavy Fuel Oil Use by Ships in Arctic,” Reuters, 17 June 2021,


Paquin (n 5); Leo Ryan, “Phase-In Ban on Heavy Fuel Oil in Arctic Shipping,” Maritime Magazine 96 (2020): 7–12.


“2020 to 2021 Integrated Plan for Regulatory Framework and Oversight,” Transport Canada, last modified 2 March 2021,; Jim Bell, “HFO Ban Could Lead to Big Arctic Price Increases, Transport Canada Says,” Nunatsiaq News, 4 February 2020,


Pauline Pic, Julie Babin, Frédéric Lasserre, Linyan Huang and Kristin Bartenstein, “The Polar Code and Canada’s Regulations on Arctic Navigation: Shipping Companies’ Perceptions of the New Legal Environment,” The Polar Journal 11(1) (2021): 95–117,; Andrey Todorov, “Russia’s Implementation of the Polar Code on the Northern Sea Route,” The Polar Journal 11(1) (2021): 30–42, doi: 10.1080/2154896X.2021.1911044.


Pic et al. (n 62).


RS Sets New Ice Class Standards,” The Naval Architect (November 2019): 26–29,; Aker Arctic, “New Regime and Regulations on Northern Sea Route” Arctic Passion News 19 (2020): 4–7,


Malte Humpert, “Kremlin Prioritizes Commercial Considerations in Arctic Safety Dispute,” High North News, 4 May 2018,; Atle Staalesen, “Russia Slackens Ice-Class Demands for Arctic Shipping,” The Barents Observer, 6 November 2018,


Malte Humpert, “Dozens of Vessels Violate Safety Rules on Northern Sea Route,” High North News, 19 October 2017,; Malte Humpert, “Yamal LNG Carrier Boris Vilkitsky in Gross Violation of Safety Rules on NSR,” High North News, 19 April 2018),; Malte Humpert, “Arctic Cargo Ship Violates Safety Rules Prompting Month-long Rescue Operation”, High North News, 14 January 2021,


Government of Russia, “Правила плавания в акватории Северного морского пути [Rules of Navigation in the Water Area of the Northern Sea Route],” Presidential Office, Decree No. 1487 of 18 September 2020,


Humpert 2021 (n 66); Frédéric Lasserre, La navigation Arctique en 2021”, L’année arctique 2021. Revue annuelle n°3 (2021): 21–31, Observatoire de la politique et la sécurité de l’Arctique (OPSA),


Jackie Dawson et al., “Infusing Inuit and Local Knowledge into the Low Impact Shipping Corridors: An Adaptation to Increased Shipping Activity and Climate Change in Arctic Canada,” Environmental Science & Policy 105 (2020): 19–36; PAME, Overview of Low Impact Shipping Corridors & Other Shipping Management Schemes (Akureyri: Arctic Council, 2021), See also the chapter by Dawson and Song in this volume.


PAME 2021 (n 69).


“Nike et Ocean Conservancy s’associent pour protéger l’Arctique,” La Dépêche, 28 October 2019,,8509829.php; Malte Humpert, “Nike and Ocean Conservancy Call On Companies to Join Pledge Against Arctic Shipping,” High North News, 31 October 2019,


“Take the Arctic Corporate Shipping Pledge,” Ocean Conservancy, 2021,


Frédéric Lasserre and Sébastien Pelletier, “Polar Super Seaways? Maritime Transport in the Arctic: An Analysis of Shipowners’ Intentions,” Journal of Transport Geography 19(6) (2011): 1465–1473; Lasserre et al. 2016 (n 30).


Hwee Hwee Tan, “MSC Reaffirms Northern Sea Route Rejection as Russia Ramps Up Arctic Rhetoric,” Lloyd’s Loading List, 6 April 2021,

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Shipping in Inuit Nunangat

Governance Challenges and Approaches in Canadian Arctic Waters

Series:  Publications on Ocean Development, Volume: 101


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