Why we need strong shipping rules for the polar regions
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The recent saga of a Russian fishing vessel that struck a submerged iceberg in the Antarctic Ocean illustrates the perils of polar shipping. Three ships originally tried to rescue the 32 crew members of the stranded vessel but were unsuccessful because of heavy sea ice. An icebreaker finally arrived after nearly two weeks and provided assistance, eventually forging a path for the fishing vessel to take to open waters. This sort of incident is on the rise due to increased vessel traffic in polar waters which, despite losses in ice cover, still present extremely treacherous conditions. The stranding also highlights concerns around crew safety and potential environmental disasters in remote areas where rescue missions and disaster mitigation can take days to initiate.
Friends of the Earth’s new report on the need for a strong Polar Code provides recommendations for minimizing the environmental risks associated with polar shipping. The report finds that enacting robust hull strengthening standards and fuel tank protections are essential for safe operation in ice-covered polar waters. In addition, the report concludes that ships in the Arctic Ocean should be banned from using heavy fuel oil — also known as bunker fuel — when operating in this sensitive region. Switching to distillate fuel would dramatically reduce risks to the marine environment in the event of a spill. Moreover, using a higher quality fuel such as marine distillate would reduce black carbon emissions, a powerful contributor to warming in the Arctic.