Shipping lines expanding Canadian Arctic operations

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November 29, 2017

For AJOT Nov. 27 issue (breakbulk quarterly)

By Leo Ryan, AJOT

            Every November, another shipping season in Canada’s formidable Arctic waters has come and gone. The specialized ice-class Canadian fleets had a busy year delivering bulk, breakbulk, general cargo and various Arctic sealift supplies between July and end October to sparsely-populated communities with almost non-existent marine infrastructure. It was also a record period for shipments of iron ore by foreign-flag carriers from the gigantic mining complex (see separate report) on Baffin Island.

            Among the Canadian carriers, Montreal-based Fednav Limited is not a sealift player strictly-speaking but occupies a category all by itself, having notably participated in every major shipping project involving northern mines. A pioneering presence in Canada’s Arctic for more than six decades, Fednav today owns and operates three vessels that constitute the world’s most powerful, non-nuclear icebreaking bulk carriers. They transport more than two million metric tons annually from northern mines.  And since the late 1990s, Fednav has been exclusively offering virtually year-round services among Canadian carriers engaged in the Arctic trades.

“With the success of year-round shipping, resource developers are no longer reliant on summer-only shipping,” Tim Keane, Fednav’s manager of Arctic operations, told the American Journal of Transportation. “Fednav’s fleet of icebreaking bulkcarriers act as mine resupply vessels, adapted to the needs of the projects which they serve.

“These unique vessels haul virtually all the consumables required to keep the lights on at three remote mines in northern Canada. With access to reliable year-round supply, mining companies can better manage inventories of mission critical supplies,” Keane said.

The MV Arctic pioneered winter arctic shipping, and since 1998, has serviced the Raglan mine 60 miles south of Deception Bay. In 2006, the MV UMIAK I was delivered and has been providingVale’s Voisey Bay Mine with a complete transportation solution.

 In 2014, the newest of the icebreaking fleet, the Polar Class MV Nunavik was delivered to serve the Canadian Royalties mine in northern Quebec. Impressively enough, this 25,000-DWT ship is capable of maintaining continuous progress of three knots through ice 1.5 metres ( five feet) thick.

Each vessel is capable of carrying the fuel needed to power all the heavy equipment on site, as well as the electrical needs of mining projects located far beyond the reach of southern power grids. 

            The Fednav vessels deliver nickel and copper concentrates from the three mines to smelters in southern Canada and in Europe. “Mining companies thus benefit from the ability to steadily feed their supply chain throughout the year, rather than stockpiling massive inventories while awaiting open water,” Keane noted.

Two leading sealift players

            In Arctic sealift operations, the two main players are Desgagnés Transarctik, a subsidiary of Quebec-based Groupe Desgagnés, and Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping (NEAS), an Inuit-controlled company jointly owned by Makivik Corporation and Logistec’s Transport Nanuk.

            Headed by Louis-Marie Beaulieu, the Groupe Desgagnés has in recent years carried out a C$300 million fleet expansion plan. There are 19 vessels trading in the Arctic, the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes as well as on the U.S. East Coast. It has been operating in the Eastern Canadian Arctic for over 40 years. Regular trips supply Inuit communities in Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Nunavut between July and October. Desgagnés Transarctik uses four or five specially adapted vessels for northern operations – equipped to withstand ice and with cranes to unload the tugs and barges required to discharge cargoes on shore.

            For its part, following the addition of new ship last summer, the NEAS fleet of five multi-purpose vessels serves 14 communities in northern Quebec and 22 more in the vast territory of Nunavut. The multi-purpose, heavy-lift MV Nunavik has a capacity of 665 TEUs and possesses two combinable cranes of 180 tons.

            The NEAS vessels transport a wide variety of cargo – from construction materials to vehicles, heavy equipment, to house wares and non-perishable food. Acting as the principal staging centre is the Valport Maritime  Services facility at the Port of Valleyfield, near Montreal on the St. Lawrence River.

            Arctic supply represents a relatively small component of the overall shipping activity in an extensive geographical area of North America for Petro-Nav, a subsidiary of  Groupe Desgagnés. But Christopher King, Director of Operations, emphatically declares: “The Arctic is a very important part of our brand – it defines who we are and what we do.”

            Speaking to AJOT, King offered details of Petro-Nav’s operations in the Arctic and evoked the challenges of serving a formidable, remote region where global warming has taken hold and is accelerating - as exemplified by the receding ice cover.

            Petro-Nav delivers fuel supplies to all 14 communities in Nunavik, Quebec’s northernmost territory. In a partnership with customer Féderation cooperative du nouveau Québec, Petro-Nav picks up the fuel from the Valero refinery at Lévis on the St. Lawrence River. The carrier is also the sole fuel supplier to the large Baffinland mining complex, in partnership with Nunavut and Sealink Supply Inc. (NSSI).

            Throughout this past summer and until late October, the Canadian-flag tanker operator sent two of its ships to Nunavik. And a large German mother ship was utilized to feed the two Petro-Nav delivery vessels. One vessel alone can carry out as many as 20 port calls and deploy 17 miles of hose during the annual four-month shipping window.

             King recalled how little infrastructure exists in the Arctic.

            “For tankers, there is a pipe coming down to a beach somewhere, down to a pile of rocks with a flange and valve at the end. And we hook up to that with the hose.

            “I first went to the Arctic as a student on a summer job in 1975, and frankly not much has changed for cargo deliveries. The ships are betting bigger and better equipped, but really not much has changed in onshore infrastructure. A dock in the Arctic? What’s that!”

            “The communities,” King went on, “are too small. It will continue to be beach-landing operations. With a barge used for the (dry bulk) cargo guys and floating hose operations for us.”

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