Feds ask industry for icebreaking help amid concerns about Coast Guard's fleet

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent makes its way through the ice in Baffin Bay, Thursday, July 10, 2008. The federal government is turning to the private sector for help in keeping the country's waters open during the winter months amid concerns about the shape of the coast guard's aging icebreaker fleet. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

OTTAWA - The federal government has turned to the private sector for help in keeping the country's waters free of ice during the winter months amid concerns about the state of Canada's icebreaking fleet.

Companies were invited Tuesday to submit proposals for the provision of icebreaking services to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, which coast guard officials would call upon as needed.

But while the government said the measure was intended to address a "short-term need," the reality is that the coast guard could end up needing outside help for years.

That is because the Canadian Coast Guard's icebreakers are nearing the end of their original 40-year life expectancies, with the average vessel already 35 years old.

Upgrades have been promised to keep the icebreakers in the water as long as possible, but only one is scheduled for replacement over the next decade through the federal shipbuilding plan.

Officials privately warned Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc last year that each passing day the ships stay in the water increases the risk of a breakdown, with 1,595 operational days lost in 2013-14.

"Operating aging vessels is challenging, as older ships break down more frequently and cost more to repair," LeBlanc was told in a briefing note obtained through the Access to Information Act.

"This issue is particularly acute for the coast guard's aging and overburdened icebreakers. There is only one polar icebreaker in the current funded plan."

That new polar icebreaker, CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, was originally expected to be in the water this year, but delays and scheduling conflicts have pushed delivery back to sometime in the next decade.

In last week's economic update, the Liberal government did commit to investing an additional $1.2 billion over five years into the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the coast guard.

But none of that new money is slated for icebreakers, even though officials told LeBlanc that such services were "critical to the safe, economical and efficient movement of ships in Canadian waters."

The coast guard has faced more demand for its icebreaking services in recent years than ever before, even as its ships get older, because of changing ice conditions and activity in the Arctic.

"There is no doubt that more investment in the coast guard fleet is required, specifically for icebreakers," LeBlanc was told.

"Industry demands newer and more capable icebreaking vessels, as well as increasing the quantity and capacity of vessels to support year-round operations."

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