The Arctic is America's Next Maritime Frontier

The medium icebreaker USCGC Healy escorting a merchant vessel in the Alaskan Arctic (file image courtesy USCG

Published May 21, 2019 4:25 PM by Buddy Custard

Two centuries ago, the SS Savannah made history as the first steamship to transit the Atlantic. At just 98 feet long and with a single, 90-horsepower engine, the vessel departed Savannah, Georgia on May 22, 1819 and arrived at Liverpool, England nearly a month later. Her maiden voyage – without cargo or paying passengers due to fears about this new means of ocean propulsion – opened a new chapter in maritime history. Appropriately, when Congress established National Maritime Day in 1933, it chose May 22nd as the official date for this annual holiday.  

National Maritime Day this year marks the 200th anniversary of Savannah’s historic voyage and like then, our nation has the opportunity to play a leading role in another maritime revolution -- the emergence of the Arctic as a viable option for shipping between North America, Asia, and Europe. As president of the non-profit Alaska Maritime Prevention & Response Network, I am keenly aware of the unique position Alaska holds in guiding the national discussion and the incredible opportunities and challenges ahead as vessel traffic increases in our region.

As nations like Russia, China, Canada, and Norway outpace the U.S. in preparing for the future of Arctic shipping, Alaska continues to shed light on the critical discussions that must be elevated to the highest priority in Washington, DC. As a nation we must double our efforts to make sure our Arctic strategy, policies, and infrastructure are sufficient to protect our interests while positioning the U.S. to take advantage of tremendous opportunities ahead.

Earlier this month, I attended a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation which illustrated the numerous ways the U.S. lags behind in policy, funding, and infrastructure. Former Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, the co-chair of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, advised the committee of our nation’s serious gaps in the Arctic, which include shortages of icebreakers, the absence of deep-water ports, vessel support and refueling facilities, and limited emergency response capabilities. He cautioned lawmakers that inaction by the U.S. “undercuts efforts to develop a safe, secure and reliable Arctic marine transportation system.” I could not agree more.

The U.S. is slowly making progress in overcoming its disadvantages among other Arctic nations. The U.S. Coast Guard is beginning construction on up to three new heavy ice breaking Polar Security Cutters. Congress is working with the State of Alaska and Bering Straits Native Corporation to determine a strategy for developing America’s first deep-water Arctic port. In addition, the International Maritime Organization has endorsed a joint U.S.-Russia shipping lane proposal for the Bering Strait. Progress is encouraging, though we have a long way to go.

We at the Network want to do our part for the Arctic. Our mission is to protect vessels, crews, and Alaska’s marine environment through partnerships that monitor vessel traffic 24/7 over 1.5 million square miles of Alaska waters and prepare for potential emergency response. The ability to track vessels and detect problems in real time allows for rapid responses to vessels in distress.

Helping shape the future of Arctic shipping is another pillar of our mission that requires research and engagement at the national and global level to help guide smart, sustainable solutions. As a non-profit, the Network brings unique, regional expertise and the perspectives of vessel operators to the table, so policies being developed are practical and ultimately successful. One example is our membership in the Arctic Council’s Arctic Shipping Best Practice Information Forum, which brings Arctic stakeholders together to exchange ideas and develop best practices related to the recently adopted Polar Shipping Codes. Having a seat at the table as a subject matter expert provides an important voice for the industry, Alaska, and our nation in these critical discussions.

For decades, Alaska has led the way in drawing the attention of national leaders towards this new era in maritime history. As the U.S. works to play more of a leadership role, lawmakers will continue to look to Alaska’s delegation and subject matter experts like Mr. Treadwell and the Network. In many ways, our nation’s future in Arctic shipping is in the hands of Alaskans. Let’s set a course to ensure the U.S. is fully committed to making the Arctic a national priority backed by a conviction to build infrastructure and policies for a successful journey.

Capt. Norman "Buddy" Custard (USCG, ret'd.) is the president and CEO of the Alaska Maritime Prevention & Response Network. He possesses extensive knowledge and expertise in maritime operations, including 30 years of service with the U.S. Coast Guard and experience as an executive for an oil firm operating on the U.S. Arctic Outer Continental Shelf.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.