"Crystal Serenity" sailed around Alaska and Canada into the Northwest passage in August 2016. Photo courtesy of Crystal Cruises

Luxury cruise ship heads to Arctic, but no environmental review

The search for the fabled Northwest Passage had cost the lives of many European explorer whose ships became frozen and crushed by the bitter Arctic ice.
August 29, 2016

Text: Marc Montgomery

Now with climate change, it seems sailing the passage through the Arctic archipelago will become a pleasant cruise aboard a luxury liner.

The liner Crystal Serenity is en route, having set off on August 16th from Alaska and is now about mid-point in the trip.

Experts have continually pointed out the potential dangers should there be an accident: this means in terms of rescue, or environmental damage.

The route plan for the 32-day Crystal Cruises Northwest Passage trip from Alaska to New York City. The trip began Aug. 16 at the Port of Seward. The itinerary includes several expedition days, when conditions permit, during which passengers may disembark to explore remote locales and indigenous villages. Map by Crystal Cruises

Waive full environment review

Nonetheless, the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB)  has recommended to the federal government to approve the voyage without a full environmental review.

Responding to Crystal Cruises submission for the trip, the NIRB said the voyage this year, and another planned for 2017, “is unlikely to have significant adverse environmental and social impacts” according to a 29-page screening decision the board released on Aug. 23.

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In terms of safety and environment the ship will have certain rules to follow such as staying away from any swimming bears.  The company has also contracted an ice-breaking safety vessel with helicopters and emergency supplies chartered from the the British Antarctic Survey to accompany the huge liner.  The ship will also be burning a low-sulphur fuel to reduce pollution.

However, concerns remain.

Elena Agarkova, senior program officer for the World Wildlife Fund noted the cruise had taken a number of safety and environmental measures. Quoted in CTV News however, she said,  “Cruise ships of the size of the Crystal Serenity are essentially huge cities. They are going to have some 1,700 passengers, including crew, on board and they are going to be discharging thousands of gallons of sewage and greywater as they sail through the Arctic waters.” She said  although the waste will be dumped at least 12 nautical miles from shore, it will still be going into the Arctic ecosystem on a daily basis.

Robert Papp, a former Coast Guard commandant who’s now U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic, also expressed some concerns about preparations in a worst-case scenario, questioning the preparations and ability to react to an accident with a ship this size and over 1,500 passengers and crew.

That’s also a concern for noted Arctic researcher and author Micheal Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia and the author of International Law and the Arctic.

He wonders if the NIRB thought about the future as more cruise ships ply the waters. Quoted by CBC he says, “When I think about the prospect of dozens of large cruise ships sailing through the Canadian Arctic each summer, I worry. I worry about the impact of a possible oil spill. I worry about the impact of ship noise on marine mammals like whales and walrus.”

He adds the ships put a strain on local governments and services and don’t contribute much economic benefit to the communities they visit.

For the some 900 or more passengers, the trip isn’t cheap, starting at over $21,000 US and going up to $120,000. Add to that, compulsory medical insurance which must include emergency evacuation coverage of $50,000.

In spite of that, the cruise sold out in less than a month.

This story is posted on Independent Barents Observer as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.

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