What Role Does Marine Trade Play In the Arctic?

For Arctic communities, marine shipping is often the only economical means of accessing essential goods, such as food, fuel and construction goods.

Many Arctic communities have become dependent on marine shipping. Due to a lack of road or rail access, communities in the Canadian Arctic are highly dependent on marine shipping for the import of essential goods. Without marine shipping, essential goods would be much more expensive in Northern Canada and some goods would not be available at all.

Iqaluit: A Case Study

In the Arctic, community resupply via ships is crucial. Iqaluit, the largest community in Canada’s eastern Arctic, illustrates the multifaceted social implications of dependence on shipping as a means of freight transportation.

Iqaluit is heavily dependent on marine shipping for the resupply of dry cargo and fuel during ice-free summer months. Each year some 1,400 tonnes of containerized cargo and 214,000 tonnes of non-containerized cargo are delivered to communities in the eastern Arctic by ship. Marine shipping is the only mode of transportation, other than aviation, linking the community to the rest of the Canadian and North American economy.

Iqaluit’s energy system is entirely dependent on petroleum products imported by ship. Nunavut has no primary energy production and relies exclusively on imported fuels for all of its energy needs, including electricity generation, heating, and transportation. These fuels are supplied by tankers during the seasonal resupply and stored in tanks on site in each community. Electricity in Iqaluit is provided by two diesel power plants. These and other small-scale renewable power plants could eventually supply some of Iqaluit’s energy needs but, given the lack of locally available energy resources, the community will remain dependent on imported fuels for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, Iqaluit is dependent on ships for the transportation of most general cargo including construction materials used in homes and other buildings. Local construction projects are dependent on shipping as a result and vulnerable to extended delays if cargo misses a sailing date. The limited availability of construction materials and their high transportation costs is one factor contributing to a housing shortage in Iqaluit — a condition shared across much of Canada’s North. New port facilities planned for Iqaluit may improve these conditions by expediting cargo offloading and reducing transport costs and the risks of delays; conversely, any further constraints on shipping would lead to increased costs and potentially exacerbate an already acute housing shortage.

The availability and affordability of food is also a challenge in Iqaluit and other Nunavut communities. Roughly 70% of Nunavut Inuit households are subject to either moderate or severe food insecurity. In Iqaluit, nearly one-third of households are food insecure, a rate three times the national average. Food insecurity in the Arctic is multifaceted; one driver is the high price of store-bought food, reflecting high transportation costs and other logistical costs (e.g., inventory costs, shrinkage, labour, energy costs). In Iqaluit, perishable food items are imported by air, but bulk, non-perishable items are often delivered by ship. Without the option of marine transport, prices for such foods would increase further.

Thus, in the case of food, fuel and construction material resupply, marine shipping remains virtually indispensable to Iqaluit.

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