TUKTOYAKTUK, Northwest Territories (Reuters) - Canada, pushing its claims of Arctic sovereignty, said on Wednesday it would toughen reporting requirements for ships entering its waters in the Far North, where some of those territorial claims are disputed by other countries.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled the plan in Tuktoyaktuk, a village near the western entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage, which is expected to see increased ship traffic and resource exploration as global warming melts ice in the polar region.
Canada will change its rules to extend its environmental regulatory jurisdiction over ships in Arctic waters to 200 nautical miles from its coast from the current 100.
A shipping act that had previously made reporting by non-Canadian ships entering the waters to be voluntary will also be tightened.
The announcement during a two-day campaign-style swing by Harper through the Far North comes amid speculation his government will call a fall election as early as next week.
Harper’s initiative to strengthen Canada’s Arctic claims and to develop the North are his most high-profile initiatives in some time and are bound to feature prominently in the expected poll.
“These measures will send a clear message to the world. Canada takes its responsibilities seriously for environmental protection and enforcement in our Arctic waters,” Harper told a chilly windswept news conference after he toured a Coast Guard boat based in Tuktoyaktuk.
Harper said Canada was not making a “power play” and the changes were in the interest of the environment.
An increase in international shipping through the Arctic raises the potential for accidents, smuggling, illegal immigration and “even threats to national security,” Harper said.
Canada claims as its territory the entire Northwest Passage, a link between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, but other countries included the United States dispute Canada’s claim over the waterway.
“It would be desirable if the United States and Canada resolve the territorial disagreements we do have in this part of the country. That said, all of these disagreements are completely manageable,” Harper said.
A government official said Ottawa does not expect the United States to object to the changes because U.S. ships now voluntarily report their presence in the region to Canada.
Canada’s new jurisdictional rules will cover the full extent of its exclusive economic zone, which Harper’s said were recognized by the United Nation’s Law of the Sea convention.
The United States has not signed the convention as critics say it could restrict naval operations and hurt industry.
Harper promised during the 2006 election campaign to aggressively defend Canada’s Arctic claims, and last year his Conservative government promised to establish two new military facilities in the region and build at least six new patrol ships to patrol Arctic waters.
On Tuesday, Harper announced that the government would boost spending on mapping Arctic energy and mineral resources to encourage development and defend Canadian sovereignty.
The government will spend C$100 million ($95 million) on the project over five years, building on a plan earlier this year to spend C$34 million over two years.
Harper, who flew to Tuktoyaktuk on a military transport plane, was greeted by a small group of aboriginal dancers and members of the Canadian Rangers. he also visited Dawson City, Yukon on Wednesday and will meet with major members of his cabinet in Inuvik, Northwest Territories on Thursday.
Reporting by Allan Dowd; editing by Ted Kerr