Cruise Ships Rarely Bring Good Tidings


The presence of cruise ships in the Northwest Passage is among the dilemmas that climate change is creating for Canada’s Inuit people amid their struggle to balance environmental and economic concerns. PHOTOGRAPH BY KIKE CALVO / REDUX

It is our view, based on news reports like this that appear constantly in myriad variations from around the world, that with few exceptions cruise ships are problematic. Here is just one more datapoint:


Last summer, the Crystal Serenity, a luxury cruise ship, embarked on a monthlong voyage through the Northwest Passage, the sea route that winds through Canada’s Arctic archipelago. The Serenity, which can accommodate more than a thousand passengers, headed through the same waters as had H.M.S. Resolute, which, in August of 1853, set out to rescue a group of British explorers and ended up trapped in the ice for the better part of a year. The Arctic Ocean is warmer than it was a hundred and sixty-three years ago, and the Crystal Serenity, accompanied by a British icebreaking vessel, made the voyage without dire incident. It is the largest cruise ship to sail through the Northwest Passage, and its voyage signalled the economic changes that are coming to the vast region as a result, in part, of climate change.

The ship, which set out from Seward, Alaska, travelled nearly a thousand miles along the Alaskan and Canadian coasts toward Nunavut, Canada’s largest and newest territory, founded in 1999 as part of a sweeping agreement with the aboriginal Inuit who have lived on the tundra for millennia. One of the ship’s last shore visits before crossing the Davis Strait to Greenland was at Pond Inlet, which sits on the northern tip of Baffin Island. The area abounds with polar bears, harp and ringed seals, millions of birds, narwhal, beluga, and bowhead whales. Nearby are glaciers, mountains, ice caves, and drifting pack ice. Abraham Kublu, a member of the Pond Inlet council, said that the cruise passengers were excited to be there, especially because their visit coincided with the first snow. “People were amazed by that,” Kublu said. It was early September.

I spoke to Kublu in March, when he and representatives from some of Nunavut’s twenty-five communities had gathered in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, to discuss the first-ever land-use plan for the territory. Drafted by the government-funded Nunavut Planning Commission, the plan is nearing completion after having been in negotiation for more than twelve years. The goal is to find a broadly acceptable compromise between protecting Nunavut’s pristine land and water, and allowing tourism, mining, and other types of development. (Today, the U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, will visit Alaska to meet with other nations that are part of the Arctic Council, which focusses on Arctic issues and aboriginal people like the Inuit. The nations’ statements on climate change are expected to be a point of contention.)

Two more land-use meetings will be held later in the year, but at a hearing that took place at the Frobisher Inn before the Nunavut Planning Commission, Nunavut residents spoke overwhelmingly in favor of protecting their land and water rather than for development. Nunavut’s thirty-seven thousand residents are spread over 808,185 square miles, and representatives from thirteen communities talked about the importance of caribou calving grounds, walrus and seal nurseries, as well as bird sanctuaries and polynyas—open water within an ice pack, where seals and whales often concentrate.

The speakers weren’t opposed to development, but they saw the encroachment of the cruise-ship industry as a particularly frustrating point of tension. “The cruise ships are disturbing many wildlife as they travel,” Kublu, the Pond Inlet councillor, told the commission. “We have stressed that cruise ships be restricted, but there is no response from anybody. They come and go as they please. This is regrettable and unfortunate. We have no voice.”

Joshua Kango, a resident of Iqaluit, complained about the effects that cruise ships and their many passengers have on wildlife. “These people go on shore and disturbing with their Zodiac boats”—small inflatable craft. “They disturb whales, and this category is the worst offenders, ships carrying tourist travellers. Whoever issued these licenses are not thinking of the Inuit.” Another attendee told the commission that when ships approach colonies of nesting birds on the cliffs, the birds fly away and drop their eggs. Others argued that protecting Nunavut’s land would preserve Inuit lifestyle and culture. As another of Pond Inlet’s representatives, Elijah Panipakootcho, put it, “We are eaters of mammals from the sea.”

The draft land-use plan proposes buffer zones and other types of restrictions for marine traffic around important habitats. But the Nunavut Planning Commission and the people of Nunavut may not have the final say. Canada claims the Northwest Passage as its own internal waters because it winds through the islands and fjords of Nunavut, but other countries, including the United States, say that it is international waters. Recently, the Chinese government issued a marine shipping guide for vessels carrying the Chinese flag, specifically focussing on transit through the Northwest Passage…

Read the whole post here.

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