AECO Supportive of Stricter Svalbard Protection Measures

polar bear

By The Maritime Executive 12-17-2019 01:52:51

On December 9, 2019, the Norwegian Government stated it is considering a generalized ban on heavy fuel oil (HFO), size limitation on passengers ships in Svalbard and other measures to manage growing tourism.

The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) is supportive of the measures, saying it believes that an organized and well-managed travel industry is the best way to ensure that Arctic tourism is carried out with the utmost consideration for the natural environment and local cultures as well as the challenging safety hazards the region presents.

AECO has long been a supporter of a generalized ban on the use and carriage of HFO in Svalbard and the Arctic, and members operate under a self-imposed ban. 

Speaking on the size limitation on ships, Executive Director Frigg Jørgensen said that AECO’s members generally operate small and medium sized vessels carrying up to 500 passengers, with the average passenger capacity ranging from 150 to 200 passengers.

“We see many benefits of using relatively small vessels. The ships are less reliant on port infrastructure and are able to visit remote sites in a sustainable manner,” he said. “Smaller passenger groups can also be more manageable for Arctic communities receiving them as visitors. In addition, a recent study from Svalbard shows that the expedition cruise vessels on average contribute 5.2 times more in local income per passenger compared to conventional cruise tourism. 

“From a search and rescue perspective smaller vessels may also be easier to manage. In other words, there may be some benefits to favoring small vessels” says Jørgensen. “However, tourism is a major industry in Svalbard and the local community is depending on income from the cruise tourism in general. Before any regulations are enforced, the impact this may have on local business and communities should be researched, and local as well as industry stakeholders should be consulted.”

The Government is also considering additional measures to protect wildlife, nature and cultural heritage, which may include stricter rules about polar bear disturbance and landings in fragile areas.

AECO says it has developed and imposed a number of guidelines and standards to ensure responsible and considerate operations. These guidelines and standards are mandatory for all AECO members and come in addition to legal requirements. This includes guidelines for observation of polar bears and other wildlife, biosecurity and operational guidelines dealing with safety and preparedness. It also includes site-specific guidelines that provide detailed instructions on how to carry out safe landings without disturbing local wildlife, natural features and cultural heritage.

Several new Arctic guidelines were made mandatory in November in preparation for the 2020 Arctic cruise season. These include Clean Seas Guidelines for Visitors, Vegetation Guidelines, Cultural Remains Guidelines, Yacht Guidelines and Community Specific Guidelines for Seyðisfjörður, Sisimiut and Ny-Ålesund. Seven new specific guidelines for communities in Greenland and Canada are in the pipeline.

AECO says passenger vessels can represent a very valuable asset in Arctic SAR operations. Expedition cruise ships sail to remote areas of the Arctic during the summer season and will therefore often be one of the nearest available resources if another vessel or even a local community experiences difficulty and need assistance. In such cases, the expedition cruise ships can act as a vessel of opportunity to the vessel in distress. Since the Arctic is characterized by long distances and limited search and rescue capabilities, vessels of opportunity can be an invaluable asset in SAR operations in the Arctic. In many cases, a vessel of opportunity will be able to reach a vessel in distress long before search and rescue vessels or other assistance can arrive on site.