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Protection of Canada’s Arctic Waters

By BCShippingNews 29 March 2017
By Peter Swanson, Partner, Bernard LLP

Canada has a long and robust history of seeking to protect Canada’s Arctic waters. The transit of the U.S. tanker S.S. Manhattan in the late summer of 1969 through the Northwest Passage was viewed by the government at the time as a challenge to Canadian sovereignty and brought into sharp focus the risks associated with tanker and related traffic in northern waters. According to Larry Gedney and Merritt Helfferich in “Voyage of the Manhattan” (Alaska Science Forum, December 19, 1983) the transit was challenging for a large tanker requiring assistance from both Canadian and U.S. escorts. They wrote:

The Manhattan, heavily reinforced for this voyage, was as long as the Empire State building laid on its side, and displaced about twice the amount of water as the Queen Elizabeth. She was equipped with the latest nautical navigation aids, relying largely on satellite fixes which could place her location to within a third of the ship’s length. These instruments did not always work, however, and at times it was necessary for the crew to measure the ship’s speed by throwing blocks overboard and timing their passage by stopwatch.

Setting sail from Chester, Pennsylvania on August 24, 1969, she managed to plow her way north to Point Barrow by September 14, and returned to New York by November 12.

But there were problems. Although the Manhattan broke ice up to 14 feet thick for extended periods and smashed ice ridges up to 40 feet, she often got stuck in hard polar ice.

Apparently underpowered in reverse, she had only one-fourth as much power to go astern as to go forward. At one point on the night of September 10-11, the Manhattan was attempting to become the first vessel to make an east-to-west passage of McClure Strait when she became locked. She escaped only when steam was diverted from heating the living spaces to squeeze an additional 7,000 horsepower from her 43,000 horsepower turbines. Even then, it was only with the assistance of her constant companion, the Canadian icebreaker, “John A. McDonald,” that she was able to escape. The U.S. Coast Guard ship “Staten Island” also assisted in the effort.

Canada’s reaction to the transit of the S.S. Manhattan was swift by Parliamentary standards and was substantial. In 1970, Parliament enacted the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA) and extended Canada’s territorial sea from three miles to 12 miles by amending the Territorial Sea and Fishing Zones Act. Additionally, Canada took steps to ensure that these legislative changes could not be challenged internationally through the International Court of Justice by adding a reservation to Canada’s acceptance of the Court’s jurisdiction.

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