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Safety communications related to TSB investigation M18C0225 – August 2018 grounding of passenger vessel Akademik Ioffe in Nunavut

Safety action required

Risk mitigation required for vessels transiting Canadian Arctic waters

On 24 August 2018, the passenger vessel Akademik Ioffe ran aground on an uncharted shoal 78 nautical miles north-northwest of Kugaaruk, Nunavut. The grounding occurred while sailing through narrows in a remote area of the Canadian Arctic that was not surveyed to modern or adequate hydrographic standards, and where none of the vessel crew had ever been. The vessel ran aground before the bridge team could take evasive action; team members were not closely monitoring the echo sounders, and the steady decrease of the under-keel water depth went unnoticed for more than four minutes, because the echo sounders’ low water depth alarms had been turned off. The bridge team of the Akademik Ioffe considered that the narrows were safe to transit, did not expect to encounter any shoal in the area where the vessel ran aground, and consequently did not implement any additional precautions.

Multiple aeronautical search and rescue assets from the Canadian Armed Forces and maritime search and rescue assets from the Canadian Coast Guard were tasked to assist the distressed vessel. The vessel self-refloated with the flooding tide later that day, and its passengers were evacuated and transferred to the passenger vessel Akademik Sergey Vavilov the next day. While no injuries were reported, the Akademik Ioffe sustained serious damage to its hull and some of the vessel’s fuel oil was released into the environment.

Transportation Safety Board of Canada recommendation made on 19 May 2021

The gradual retreat of sea ice in the coastal waters surrounding the Canadian Arctic Archipelago has led to a notable increase in the number of passenger-carrying vessels and, particularly, of expedition-type cruises. The decrease in sea ice coverage allows passage into areas outside of the main corridors that are less travelled or where vessels have not been before, and for which there may be limited hydrographic information, increasing the risk of encountering uncharted hazards. By 2019, only 14% of the coastal waters surrounding the Canadian Arctic Archipelago had been surveyed to modern or adequate hydrographic standards, and efforts to augment the surveys have been focused primarily on the main shipping corridors, with no timeline for completion in other areas of the Arctic.

The Canadian Arctic is vast and sparsely populated, which means that response to a marine occurrence may not occur in as timely a manner as it would in more populated areas. Even in summer, near-freezing air temperatures can prevail in some areas of the Canadian Arctic; these conditions make it challenging for survivors of a vessel abandonment.

Since 1996, there have been three groundings of passenger vessels and one of a chartered yacht in the Canadian Arctic. Although this number seems low, it is high in relation to the number of passenger voyages over this period. TSBinvestigations into three of these occurrences found that deficiencies in voyage planning or execution were significant contributing factors to the occurrences. According to the International Maritime Organization, voyage planning, which includes assessing, planning, executing, and monitoring the voyage, is a key mitigation strategy against the inherent risks of Arctic navigation.

The master has full discretion as to how the bridge team carries out the four steps in the making and execution of the vessel’s voyage plans, and needs to give bridge teams the latitude to act according to the vessel’s actual situation. It is difficult to mitigate against any weaknesses within a plan, given the discretion masters have when deciding where the vessel goes, how an assessment is carried out, and how the watchkeeping is set up. In light of this, it is critical that operators of passenger-carrying vessels operating in the Canadian Arctic adopt additional mitigation strategies to address the risks associated with their itineraries and the potential weaknesses within their voyage plans, such as vetting by a third party or sharing safe itineraries among operators.

Transport Canada regulates navigation of domestic and foreign vessels within Canada’s territorial waters, including the coastal waters surrounding the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, through the Canadian Hydrographic Service, is responsible for meeting Canada’s international obligation to provide hydrographic services; the Canadian Coast Guard is responsible for the provision of marine search and rescue resources, traffic monitoring, icebreaker assistance and diffusion of navigation safety information, among other services.

Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, combined, have the regulatory mandate to implement various risk mitigation measures to reduce the likelihood and consequences of a passenger vessel running aground in Arctic waters.

These measures could include, among others:

This investigation determined that operating in the Canadian Arctic has unique risks that require additional mitigation measures in order to ensure the safety of passenger vessels, and to protect the vulnerable Arctic environment. Until the coastal waters surrounding the Canadian Arctic Archipelago are adequately charted, and if alternate mitigation measures are not put in place, there is a persistent risk that vessels will make unforeseen contact with the sea bottom, putting passengers, crew, and the environment at risk.

Therefore, the Board recommends that:

the Department of Transport in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, develops and implements mandatory risk mitigation measures for all passenger vessels operating in Canadian Arctic coastal waters.
TSB Recommendation M21-01