The country’s biggest icebreaker will take trip through Northwest Passage this summer, US Coast Guard says

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the ice Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, about 715 miles north of Utqiaġvik, Alaska, in the Arctic.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the ice Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, about 715 miles north of Utqiaġvik, Alaska, in the Arctic. (Public domain photo by NyxoLyno Cangemi/U.S. Coast Guard)

Last year, the United States’ largest icebreaker needed repairs after an engine fire. This summer, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy will take a trip through the Northwest Passage, in conjunction with Canada.

Experts said the Coast Guard cutter Healy’s trip through the Northwest Passage signifies a willingness to cooperate between Canada and the U.S. The announcement came from Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz during his State of the Coast Guard Address on March 11.

Professor Troy Bouffard studies Arctic security at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He said the two countries disagree about the status of the Northwest Passage. The United States said it’s an international strait that ships should be able to transit without Canada’s consent, but Canada said those are internal waters that fall within its sovereignty and they should be notified of any transit.

“I think it sends a clear message or agreement to disagree. The official status of the Northwest Passage is somewhat less important than being able to collaborate and operate with expectations and confidence with our partners,” Bouffard said.

The countries have a treaty, signed in 1988, basically agreeing that the United States will get Canada’s consent to sail icebreakers through waters Canada claims. That treaty came about after controversy in 1985 when the U.S. icebreaker Polar Sea transited the passage without telling Canada.

The upcoming 2021 trip honors that treaty. But in recent years, the U.S. has considered moves that would have violated that.

In response to a 2019 Russian announcement that the country would restrict traffic in the Northern Sea Route, the U.S. said it likely would conduct an exercise in the Northwest Passage. That exercise could have inflamed tensions with Russia and Canada, but it never happened.

Bouffard said that the Biden administration and Canada jointly planning this summer’s 2021 trip is a strategic move — and that it sends a message to Russia and U.S. adversaries.

“I tend to think that this was also a clear message to, as quick as possible, strengthen the friendship in partnership with Canada in light of recent years of tensions and mixed messages about freedom of navigation and get back to the way things normally were,” Bouffard said.

“The Arctic continues to be a region of growing geostrategic importance, where the maxim ‘presence equals influence’ rings true,” Schultz said in his address to the Coast Guard earlier in March.

Statements like that aren’t lost on Kawerak’s Marine Advocate Austin Ahmasuk. He pays close attention to those international tensions as he studies shipping traffic and activity in the region.

“I think what’s perhaps playing out, is a little bit of rhetoric between countries that are kind of escalating hot political topics, such as, security interests, national defense, that kind of thing. I don’t think that we in the Arctic want to be in the middle of an arms race or political stage playing that puts us in jeopardy. Of course, we have to work internationally, as much as possible to ensure that peace occurs in the Arctic,” Ahmasuk said.

Ahmasuk said the Coast Guard and U.S. military have been destructive toward Alaska Native people many times. As one example, he points to the military’s history of leaving toxic waste in the Arctic.

Even the Healy’s namesake, Capt. Michael Healy was partially responsible for the destruction of the Tlingit village of Angoon in 1882. While U.S. Naval Cmdr. Edgar C. Merriman is often cited as the primary officer who gave the order for the bombardment, historical documents do show that Healy, as captain of the Thomas Corwin, did participate in the bombardment.

But as temperatures rise, Ahmasuk recognizes the undeniable increase in traffic in the Arctic waterways. And he’s hopeful that trips like the Healy’s upcoming Northwest Passage journey could be a chance for communication between federal agencies and Indigenous people.

“I hope that the Coast Guard can learn from our communities, and compare how our communities contrast [and] how our communities might be involved in this new era — this relatively new era that we’re trying to figure out now,” he said.

Bouffard explained that this trip is meant to be primarily for research and learning.

“I hope this does become a pattern for research and for other means and collaborations and learning about the environment and working together because the U.S. Coast Guard and the Canadian Coast Guard have completely different statutory requirements,” he said. “For example, the U.S. Coast Guard has a law enforcement function, especially with regard to international law, whereas Canada doesn’t. There’s a lot to learn from each other in that way.”

And he said there is still much to be studied and surveyed in the Northwest Passage.

According to Coast Guard documents, the trip will be primarily observational. And pending approval from Canadian officials, it will allow for some onboard scientists to do some “passive research”.

The Coast Guard does plan to do some undefined operational exercises in Baffin Bay after embarking from Nuuk, Greenland.

Right now, Nome’s Harbormaster Lucas Stotts doesn’t have any official word on whether the U.S. Cutter Healy will dock in Nome.

But according to the Coast Guard, the voyage plans to begin in mid-August from Dutch Harbor and finish by mid-September in Nuuk. Plans have not yet been decided for the timing or route of the USCG Healy’s return voyage to its homeport in Seattle, Washington.