The Arctic Coast Guard Forum: advancing governance and cooperation in the Arctic

Photo courtesy of the US Coast Guard

See The Simons Foundation's Disarming Arctic Security page for briefing papers on military policies and practices in the Arctic region by Ernie Regehr, Senior Fellow in Arctic Security at The Simons Foundation.

The Arctic Coast Guard Forum: advancing governance and cooperation in the Arctic

The eight states of the Arctic region have agreed to establish a new means of cooperating in support of public safety, search and rescue, and environmental protection in the Arctic, making the Arctic Coast Guard Forum another step toward solidifying the Arctic as cooperative security community. As US Admiral Zukunft said of the new Forum: “we have an opportunity to… make [the Arctic] a region that focuses on humanitarian concerns, on environmental concerns, on the way of life of indigenous tribes, and not as a war-fighting domain.”

The agreement to foster cooperation and coordination among the region’s Coast Guards is one part of the response to steadily changing Arctic realities. Increasing maritime traffic, the potential for intensified resource extraction, and hopes for expanded fishing are challenging Arctic states to improve their capabilities in areas such as search and rescue, environmental protection (including oil spill response capacity), aids to navigation, border control, fisheries inspection, policing services, and maritime domain awareness. And enhanced international cooperation is one way to try and meet those requirements more effectively and efficiently. The Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) established at the end of October follows on the Arctic Council’s 2011 search and rescue agreement and 2013 oil spills response agreement and is intended as a concrete step towards implementation of those earlier agreements.

As if to punctuate the importance of improving maritime regulation and emergency response capacity within the region, the Chinese cargo-shipping giant, Cosco, also announced at the end of October that it plans regular container shipments along the Northern Sea Route on the Russian side of the Arctic Ocean. For the time being the Russian Northeast route is more attractive than the Canadian Northwest passage because of less predictable ice conditions in the latter and because Russia has a more advanced marine infrastructure and continues to make major investments in it.

While increased traffic, both through traffic like Chinese shipping and increased traffic to destinations in the Arctic linked to increased human activity in the region, can be a boon to economic development, to national Coast Guards it’s more a matter of preparing for the worst. While some may be fixated on the trillions of dollars’ worth of oil and gas reserves the Arctic is said to hold, Coast Guards are mandated to worry about what happens when a ship spills oil or a drilling operation goes horribly wrong. They need to think about “what happens if a cruise ship hits an uncharted sea mount and you have three thousand cruise ship passengers stranded on the ice or on the ship."

An official of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, under which the Canadian Coast Guard operates, notes that “the Forum was envisioned to provide an opportunity for coast guards with an Arctic area of responsibility to focus on and advance operational issues of common interest in the Arctic, such as search and rescue, emergency response, and ice-breaking, to facilitate multi-level collaboration between coast guards and to support the work of the Arctic Council.” Carole Saindon said collaboration among all eight states of the Arctic on such operational matters “is to everyone’s benefit.” Continue reading....


Ernie Regehr, O.C. is Senior Fellow in Arctic Security at The Simons Foundation, and Research Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.