Towards ever-closer co-operation

Analysis | The emergence of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum has added an important governance structure in the region

Becca Pincus 

The commentary below was originally published in the 2015 Arctic Yearbook in October. It has been updated to reflect the developments of last week’s meeting of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

In October 2015, the eight Arctic states sent their heads of coast guard or equivalent official delegation to a summit, at which the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) was formally launched.

In June of 2016, these heads of coast guards met again in Boston, to build on the important emerging work of the ACGF. It should be clear by the rapid tempo of meetings (additional experts’ level meetings have occurred between October and June) that the Arctic states are committed to bringing the ACGF up to cruising speed as quickly as possible, and are united in their eagerness to see the ACGF make a tangible contribution to safety and security in the maritime Arctic.

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The AGCF enables Arctic coast guard agencies to co-operate at the operational level in the maritime Arctic. The operational level is where the rubber meets the road: where missions are carried out afloat and in port, where helicopters are scrambled, inspections carried out and incident response units deployed. While high-level diplomacy gets more attention, the kind of interagency relationship-building at the operational level supported by the ACGF can lead to immediate benefits to Arctic communities and stakeholders.

The ACGF is a welcome and important element of Arctic governance. Recognising that increasing access to the Arctic Ocean will increase the demands placed upon Arctic states for coast-guard missions, which typically include search-and -rescue, as well as enforcement of regulations pertaining to environmental protection, fishing and vessel safety, the ACGF will provide a forum where Arctic states can build co-operation on these operational issues.

Priorities for the ACGF include the creation of an information-sharing mechanism, in order to enable Arctic coast guards to communicate and collectively maintain awareness of emergency situations that may occur. In addition, the ACGF will seek to synthesise data on vessel traffic patterns and environmental conditions to enable effective planning. Importantly, the ACGF is also planning joint exercises, both tabletop and live, involving all eight Arctic states. These exercises will improve co-ordination and solidify relationships among the eight agencies.

The ACGF builds on existing Atlantic and North Pacific Coast Guard Forums, and is operationally focused and consensus-based. While independent of the Arctic Council, the ACGF is complimentary to the organisation’s efforts, in particular the Emergency Prevention and Pollution Response (EPPR) working group.

Through building relationships at the operational level, as well as sharing best practices and lessons learned, Arctic coast guards can improve their individual mission fulfilment as well as refine co-operative responses to incidents that require international response. The ACGF offers practical benefits to all Arctic nations, particularly given the high cost of Arctic-capable emergency response equipment and platforms.

The extreme conditions and distances present in the Arctic martime region, particularly across the North American and Russian coasts, pose significant challenges to efficient fulfilment of coast-guard missions. Several recent incidents of note demonstrate that the dangers of the Arctic region argue forcefully for co-ordinated international response capacity.

For example, the extended transit of a barge owned by Canada’s Northern Transportation Company Ltd, which drifted over 1,300 miles from Canadian waters, through US waters, before reaching Russian waters, where it was finally retrieved, demonstrates not only the challenges present in the region, but also the critical importance of building strong working relationships between all Arctic coast-guard agencies at the operational level.

Another example, the sinking of the South Korean fishing vessel Oryong 501, which sank in heavy seas in December 2014, triggered an international response that included US and Russian parties along with South Korean vessels. While the Oryong 501 sank in the Russian SAR zone, the proximity and capability of US Coast Guard assets led to a response dominated by USCG assets, working with Russian and South Korean authorities.

The examples above should make clear that grave incidents occur in the Arctic, and as maritime traffic increases and weather patterns become (even) less predictable as the climate continues to destabilise, their frequency is likely to increase. Despite political conditions, Arctic coast guards will need to continue their practical co-operation, since a large-scale disaster like a sunken cruise ship or major oil spill will quickly overwhelm the capacity of any one state. In the extreme conditions of the Arctic, co-operation is a non-negotiable.

The author is a visiting Professor at the United States Coast Guard Academy.

Photo: US Coast Guard

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