The Gulf of St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence River can represent formidable challenges for shipping when severely frigid winters provoke massive ice formations in the channels, as in recent weeks. But it has happened before and Canada’s marine industry feels it constitutes no excuse for the Canadian Coast Guard to have failed significantly this winter in its vital task of offering sufficient icebreaker support to domestic ships and foreign-flag ocean vessels imprisoned in ice along the more than one thousand mile long waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the industrial heartland of North America.
So, a mighty blasting has been delivered to the Ottawa authorities on the negative implications for the reputation of the waterway as a reliable transportation route 365 days a year. Industry officials also warned of “a less than ideal outcome within the context of an increasingly global economy and a recently-negotiated free trade agreement with the European Union.”
Efficient icebreaker service has, notably, been critical for the Port of Montreal in its emergence as a major intermodal hub on the East Coast. This year marks the 50th anniversary of year-round navigation at Montreal thanks to strong winter support from the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG).
Associations representing Canada’s marine industry sent a bluntly-worded letter on Jan. 30 to Gail Shea, federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, blaming inadequate Coast guard services for causing “serious financial losses for Canadian industries and their trading partners overseas.”
Reportedly one third of the Coast Guard icebreaking fleet normally on duty for the region was not available to assist vessels caught in ice because they were undergoing refit/repairs or were deployed on search and rescue missions on the Atlantic coast.
Rather than attempting to prolong the life of a fleet with average age of 33 years and “in a state of increasing obsolescence,” the letter urged the federal government to “undertake immediate action to invest in the construction of medium and heavy icebreakers.”
Such a move, the object of a number of industry representations in the past few years, should take “precedence over the planned construction of a $1 Billion polar icebreaker dedicated to the Arctic,” said the letter signed by the St. Lawrence Shipoperators, the Shipping Federation of Canada, the St. Lawrence Economic Development Council (SODES), and Association of Canadian Port Authorities.
As it happens, start of construction of the polar icebreaker announced several years ago (and conceived as part of a sovereignty campaign in the Arctic) remains mired in uncertainty due to budget and other complicating factors.
The joint letter urged the Coast Guard to “make additional units available in order to respect its recently-renewed agreement on icebreaking services.”
The industry letter also rammed home this point: “The maintenance of winter operations in the St. Lawrence, Saguenay and Gulf cannot be sacrificed for the profit of another region, especially when one considers that trade along the St. Lawrence corridor generates economic benefits of more than $2.3 billion annually for Quebec, and represents more than 40 percent of Canada’s international freight and 50 percent of its domestic freight.”
The letter, nevertheless, did not question the resourcefulness or quality of the work done by Coast Guard employees under difficult circumstances.
Copies of the letter were sent to a number of federal and Quebec government ministers and departments, including federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, federal International Trade Minister Ed Fast, and Sylvain Gaudreault, Minister of Transport of Quebec.
Huge Losses for Delayed Ships
Between January 3 and January 9, some 20 ships were stranded in the St. Lawrence waterway. The deep freeze had started in earnest around Christmas in December.
According to SODES in a press release, the losses to the maritime industry and to foreign trading partners due to delayed arrival of Coast Guard assistance “averaged more than $100,000 per ship per 24 hours of delay.”
“SODES deplores the lack of planning of the Canadian Coast Guard for the construction of new icebreakers dedicated to the maintenance of the St. Lawrence waterway,” said SODES President Nicole Trépanier.
Among carriers hit hard was Groupe Desgagnés of Quebec City. A spokesperson indicated, for instance, that two of its ships caught in ice had to wait six days off Rimouski on the St. Lawrence River for a Coast Guard vessel to arrive.