FIRST CONTAINER SHIP TAKES THE NORTHERN SEA ROUTE TO EUROPE




Robert Harneis-TDO- (FRANCE)- A Maersk vessel loaded with Russian fish and South Korean electronics is the first container ship to navigate an Arctic sea route that Russia hopes will become a new shipping highway.

The Arctic voyage by the 3,600 20-foot container capacity Venta Maersk is the latest step in the expansion of the so-called Northern Sea Route which is becoming more accessible to ships as climate change reduces the amount of sea ice.

The brand new Venta Maersk, one of the world’s largest ice-class vessels, will also collect scientific data, said Maersk, underlining that the voyage is a one-off trial for now.

The decision by Maersk, the world’s biggest container shipping group, to test out the route is a positive sign for Russia, which hopes this could become a mini Suez Canal, cutting sea transport times from Asia to Europe.

A well-respected company like Maersk sending a container ship through the Arctic, definitely signals there’s something there,” Malte Humpert, a senior fellow at U.S.-based think-tank Arctic Institute, told Reuters.

The Northern Sea Route runs from Murmansk near Russia’s border with Norway to the Bering Strait near Alaska. Ships sailing it require a permit from Russian authorities. While the route is significantly shorter than going via the Suez Canal, it has not yet proven to be commercially viable for container shippers.

“Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to our usual routes,” a spokeswoman for Maersk said. “Today, the passage is only feasible for around three months a year which may change with time,” the spokeswoman said.

Sea ice around the North Pole reaches its biggest area at the end of the winter in March, and thaws to an annual minimum in September. In the past, more expensive ice-classed vessels, higher transit fees, unpredictable ice coverage, high insurance rates, a lack of search and rescue teams, and hefty fees for Russian ice-breaker escorts have put off many international shipping firms. But Russian officials have said there is strong interest in the sea route from Asian countries and that new icebreakers will allow for year-round navigation in the 2020s.

Venta Maersk is now continuing to St. Petersburg without escort. She is expected to arrive on September 27. The vessel left Busan, South Korea, on September 8, and her subsequent voyage from Vladivostok in Russia's south-east marks to St. Petersburg in the north-east a first for a Maersk container ship in the region.

Russia is building new roads and a railway and overhauling its ports in an expansion of its freight capacity to prepare for a potential increase in shipping traffic along its Arctic coast.

The Venta Maersk is the first container ship to sail the route, but other types of vessels have already used it, including Maersk’s Chinese rival COSCO, according to the Arctic Institute. In January, China revealed ambitions to create a “Polar Silk Road” by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming and encouraging enterprises to build infrastructure in the Arctic.

Russian natural gas producer Novatek delivered the first ever liquefied natural gas (LNG) cargo to China via the Northern Sea Route in July.