Image: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, center, and Minister of the Environment John Baird, right, with navigator Ryan Hull
Todd Korol  /  Reuters
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, center, and Minister of the Environment John Baird, right, talk to navigator Ryan Hull while touring the coast guard ship Nahidik north of the Arctic Circle in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories on Wednesday.
updated 8/27/2008 7:59:55 PM ET 2008-08-27T23:59:55

Canada's prime minister moved to firm up control of disputed Arctic waters Wednesday by announcing stricter registration requirements for ships sailing in the Northwest Passage.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said all ships sailing into the Canadian Arctic will be required to report to NORDREG, the Canadian Coast Guard agency that tracks vessels on such journeys. Such registration is currently voluntary.

Canada's control of the Northwest Passage is widely disputed internationally, including by the United States and the European Union. Most countries consider the passage to be international waters.

Global warming has raised the stakes in the scramble for sovereignty in the Arctic because shrinking polar ice could someday open up resource development and new shipping lanes.

Record traffic
The rapid melting of ice has raised speculation that the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans could one day become a regular shipping lane. This summer has seen record traffic by cruise ships and pleasure craft in the Arctic.

The fabled Northwest Passage runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic archipelago. Early European explorers sought the passage as a shorter route to Asia, but found it rendered inhospitable by ice and weather.

Ships currently must register with NORDREG to gain access to Canadian Coast Guard information on weather and ice conditions and the great majority of them do. Private pleasure craft, however, usually don't. In the past, some cruise ships also have sailed into the passage without telling the coast guard.

"These measures will send a clear message to the world," Harper said during a cold, blustery press conference held on the shores of the Beaufort Sea. Harper said he expects foreign ships to abide by the new requirement.

"Some countries may object to what we're doing on principle, on the grounds that they may not recognize our sovereignty. I expect that we will get co-operation for the most part on reporting because I think it ultimately is in everybody's interest to ensure that there is some kind of authority in the area, some kind of environmental and commercial authority," Harper said.

Increasing fleet
Harper said Canada is preparing to deal with those who don't register.

"We're increasing our Coast Guard fleet. We will be increasing our capacity to intercept and detain those who don't respect the reporting requirements," he said.

Harper has recently been hinting at a fall election and Arctic sovereignty is expected to become a major plank in the his election platform.

Harper also said his government will double the jurisdiction of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act to 233 miles from Canadian shores. The act prohibits the deposit of waste in Arctic waters from either land or ship sources, tougher rules than what is followed in international waters.

"These measures will send a clear message to the world," Harper said in an advance copy of his speech.

"Canada takes full responsibility for environmental protection and enforcement in our Arctic waters."

The Harper government has pledged billions on military and coast guard spending, and created a number of vast new parks and protected areas. On Tuesday, Harper said Canada is planning to map energy and mineral resources in its Arctic region in a bid to encourage development and assert its sovereignty in the far north.

Energy reserves under Arctic
Harper has said it is estimated that a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas lies under the Arctic.

"As an environmental matter, as a security matter and as an economic matter we are making it perfectly clear that not only do we claim jurisdiction over the Canadian Arctic, we are also going to put the full resources of the government of Canada behind enforcing that jurisdiction," Harper said.

The U.S., Russia, Denmark and Norway also have been attempting to assert their jurisdiction over the Arctic. All five countries have been competing in front of a United Nations commission to extend their undersea boundaries into areas usually blocked by Arctic ice.

Moscow dramatically staked its claim to the region by using a submersible to dive thousands of feet below the surface and drop a Russian flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole last year.

But since then all five countries involved have agreed to cool the Arctic rhetoric and allow scientists to finish their surveys.

Canada also has vowed to increase its icebreaker fleet and build two new military facilities in the Arctic. Earlier this month, the Canadian government announced that it is also searching for two fabled British explorer ships that disappeared in the Arctic more than 160 years ago.

Canada is searching for British Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin's two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were last seen in the late-1840s.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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