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The Nordic Orion along the Northern Sea route, along the north coast of Russia, in this undated handout photo.

Nordic Bulk Carriers

Sometime between Sunday and Monday evenings, Greenwich Mean Time, the bulk carrier Nordic Orion passed through the Northwest Passage and into Baffin Bay, sailing into history as it went.

The ship – a 225-metre, ice-strengthened carrier loaded with B.C. coal bound for Finland – became the first bulk carrier to make the voyage, which has lured explorers for more than a century and has long been eyed as a commercial route.

Until the Nordic Orion, however, the passage was travelled mostly by icebreakers, tugs and small cargo ships hauling supplies to northern communities, as well as adventurers undertaking the journey in rowboats and even Jet Skis.

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With a commercial bulk carrier now having passed through the route, discussions about Arctic sovereignty and marine infrastructure have become more than theoretical.

"The Canadian government needs to take a firm stand on shipping via the Northwest passage in order to safeguard the environment and to enforce Canada's sovereignty," James Given, president of the Seafarers' International Union of Canada, said Wednesday in an e-mail. "There must be a net benefit to Canada, and Canadian stakeholders in the shipping industry, not just an open door to Flag of Convenience Shipping to increase their profit margins by shaving miles off of their shipping routes."

The SIU represents sailors working in Canadian waters and on vessels delivering cargo to the United States, Europe and South America.

By sailing through the Northwest Passage, the Nordic Orion was able to trim about 1,000 nautical miles from the usual route through the Panama Canal. It was also able to carry about 25 per cent more coal, given how shallow the canal is.

Transport Canada, along with the Canadian Coast Guard, monitored the vessel while it was in the Northwest Passage, and the ship was required to provide daily position and ice conditions to Nordreg, a Coast Guard agency.

The Nordic Orion is owned by Nordic Bulk Carriers, a Danish company that has staked its future on Artic shipping. In 2010, it became the first non-Russian company to use the Northern Sea Route when it shipped iron ore from Norway to China.

This is the first time the company has sent one of its vessels through the Northwest Passage. It left Vancouver on Sept. 6, loaded with metallurgical coal. Port Metro Vancouver says the Nordic Orion loaded at Neptune Terminals, which is partly owned by Vancouver-based Teck Corp., one of the world's biggest producers of metallurgical coal.

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Metallurgical coal is used primarily in steel making, while thermal coal is used in electricity plants.

Neither Neptune Terminals nor Teck would comment on the sailing, citing customer confidentiality, and Teck said it does not use the Northwest Passage. But shipping agents say most coal is sold on a "freight on board" basis, which means that the customer takes ownership of the product as soon as it is loaded on the ship, and that Teck would not monitor or even necessarily know which route the coal would take to its final destination.

While shipping agents in Vancouver and around the world are mulling potential implications for shipping commodities, others have voiced concerns about the lack of environmental and safety infrastructure in Canada's North.

In a recent article, Michael Byers, an international law expert at the University of British Columbia, noted that Canada does not have a single port along the Northwest Passage but that Russia, by comparison, has 16 deep water ports along its Arctic coastline.

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