3. Coast Guard Icebreaking Services

The Coast Guard provides icebreaking and ice management services in support of safe navigation for mariners in ice-covered waters and for a Canadian maritime economy that is supported by navigable waters. The Coast Guard has published levels of service standards describing the type of services provided, where and when they are available, and the established response time to address a request for assistance.

Icebreaking services include:

  • providing recommended ice routes so that ships can navigate safely through or around ice covered waters, thereby reducing the need for direct icebreaker assistance;
  • providing ice charts, ice advisories, bulletins, and other ice information to marine shipping;
  • undertaking helicopter ice reconnaissance to survey ice conditions;
  • escorting ships and organizing convoys to travel through ice-infested waters;
  • maintaining shipping channels and tracks in shore-fast ice;
  • providing flood control services and preventing ice jams;
  • breaking out approaches and clearing ice from wharf faces of port terminals and facilities where commercial icebreakers are not available;
  • breaking out harbours and waterways to facilitate acceleration of ice clearance at the end of the ice season; and
  • transporting dry cargo and fuel aboard Coast Guard icebreakers from late June until mid-November in the Arctic when commercial carriers are not available or capable.

To deliver the icebreaking program, Coast Guard shares a fleet of 17 icebreakers with other core programs. Of these 17 icebreakers, 16 provide ice breaking services in south eastern Canada during the winter months and 1 is based in Western Region and is used for icebreaking only during the Arctic season. Of the 17 icebreakers, 2 are heavy icebreakers, 4 are medium icebreakers, 9 are multi-purpose vessels and 2 are air cushion vehicles that may be utilized to support the delivery of services in southern Canada during the winter months. Icebreakers are deployed in northern Canada during the summer months to support marine navigation and other programs, including science missions.

All icebreaking activities are jointly coordinated by the Ice Operations Offices with support from Regional Operations Centers when required. Inter-regional cooperation within the Coast Guard is a fundamental principle of service delivery in order to ensure maximum benefit and the most efficient use of limited icebreaking resources.

In the Great Lakes area, Coast Guard has had an agreement with the US Coast Guard for joint icebreaking activities since 1980. The agreement increases efficiency for both countries in the utilization of icebreaking resources and directly supports year-round maritime commerce in the Great Lakes.

Requests for icebreaker assistance are received by the Ice Operations Offices or by the Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centres. Coast Guard then assesses all demands for services against established priorities:

  1. all distress and emergency situations take precedence;
    1. ferry services provided in accordance with the Newfoundland Terms of Union;
    2. other ferry services;
  2. ships with vulnerable cargoes (i.e. the potential for pollution, dangerous goods, perishable) and vessels transporting cargo which is vital to the survival of communities;
  3. marine traffic and fishing vessels; and
  4. fishing harbour breakouts

The Coast Guard employs a multi-year integrated Fleet/Program planning process where all program requirements (internal and external to the department) are analyzed and planned in advance of the upcoming year. This plan is updated annually and includes the vessel program schedules and maintenance periods; however, it is dependent on program priority setting, risk assessments, and operating funds. Coast Guard is committing to share the annual Icebreakers Deployment Plan with industry and has also shared the Vessel Life Extension Plan for the first time. Enhanced communications and transparency will contribute to an improved understanding of Coast Guard actual capacity.

The risk methodology originally applied by the Icebreaking Program is based on the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) CAN/CSA-Q850-97 standardFootnote 1. In 2010, CSA replaced this standard with the internationally based risk standard CAN/ISO-31000 Risk Management. The process of evaluating risk for the icebreaking program did not change as a result of the newer standard. Essentially, it uses historical data and the professional judgement and knowledge of the Ice Superintendents to reduce the impacts of two risks: delay of vessels and flood damage caused by ice jams. The methodology takes into consideration the following elements:

  • Marine traffic schedules;
  • Ice conditions (historical data, current data and short-term forecast);
  • Demands;
  • Priorities and;
  • Deployment of icebreakers (which is based on all of the above).

Every year, the Coast Guard Icebreaking Program and clients participate in pre-season meetings, so that the marine industry can inform Coast Guard of their traffic expectations and service requirements as well as to comment on vessel schedules. The Canadian Ice Service also presents the forecasted ice conditions for the season so that Coast Guard and the marine industry can anticipate any potential areas of concern and plan accordingly. This discussion allows, among other things, making initial adjustments to the icebreaker deployment plan.

During the season, daily conference calls are made between Ice Superintendents and industry members to adjust the deployment of icebreakers when necessary and better meet industry requirements. Atlantic and Central and Arctic regions work together and take the appropriate action to provide the service. All decisions are made with respect to the five priorities established by the Coast Guard and in accordance with the requirements of other Coast Guard or government programs/priorities. Post-season meetings are also held annually.

If a risk cannot be managed as expected, the Coast Guard communicates all information available to the clients and keeps them informed of the strategy in place until the situation is back to normal.

Over the years, this risk methodology has proved its efficiency with regard to mitigating impacts of ice conditions on ships movement in Canadian ice waters. However, and as for any risk methodology, some residual risks remain and these are addressed on a case by case basis.

The Coast Guard has established policies and practices that have an impact on the Icebreaking Program. Icebreaking Directives, for example, clarify the support to sealing vessels. Fishing harbours will not be broken out if fishing vessels are unable to navigate safely and independently outside the harbour. Fishing vessels will not be escorted into heavy ice conditions; they will only be escorted safely out of hazardous ice into safer conditions. Consistent with these policies, the Coast Guard continues to encourage the marine transportation industry to use vessels that are designed and equipped for navigation in ice, and not to rely solely on the Coast Guard for icebreaker support. Ice capable vessels are better able to navigate independently in more difficult ice conditions and can therefore improve transit times and reduce delays when navigating in ice.

The 1995 federal budget called for cost recovery within the Coast Guard, based on the principle that those who benefit directly from services provided at public expense should pay a fair share of the associated cost. As a result, the Coast Guard implemented Marine Services Fees, a cost recovery initiative which was implemented in two stages: the first was the implementation of the Marine Navigation Services Fee (MNSF) in 1996 (for aids to navigation and vessel traffic services); and the second was the implementation of the Icebreaking Services Fee (ISF) in 1998. The Icebreaking Services Fee was implemented on December 21, 1998 (for the 1998-99 winter ice season) for commercial vessels to recover a portion of the costs for the provision of icebreaking services, including route assistance (channel maintenance and ship escorts), ice routing advice and information services, as well as harbour and wharf breakouts where they are not provided by commercial operators.


Footnote 1

CAN/CSA-Q850-97, Risk Management: Guideline for Decision-Makers, 1997, p.46.

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