How Maine is turning itself into an Arctic player

PORTLAND, Maine — Promoters of Maine's stake in Arctic policy often point to a map of the Northwest Passage, the sea route along the northern coast of North America that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Newly ice-free shipping lanes in the Arctic will transform Maine's sleepy ports into bustling gateways to East Asia, they say. Maine ports are situated closer to Asia than others on the Atlantic Seaboard. It's just a matter of waiting for more ice to melt.

At an Arctic forum in Portland this week, Maine independent U.S. Sen. Angus King noted the historic journey of the cruise ship Crystal Serenity, which called on Bar Harbor, Maine last month after sailing from Alaska through the Northwest Passage.

"So that tells you how Maine stands to be engaged in this," said King, who has long argued that Maine is ideally positioned to take advantage of new Arctic shipping routes.

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But industry experts counter that there are many reasons why Maine ports will likely never see significant commercial ship traffic from the Arctic. And Maine port officials and some business leaders say that speculation about receding sea ice in the future distracts from the real trade and cultural connections that are already being developed between the state and communities in the North Atlantic and aren't counting on melting sea ice to build trade.

"The advantage that Maine has — especially in respect to the North Atlantic and the Arctic — is that we are starting now," said John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority. "We are becoming engaged with these countries in an active sense today."


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Ties with northern countries such as Iceland and Norway are more important than proximity to potential Arctic shipping lanes, said Peter Handy, CEO of Bristol Seafoods, which imports line-caught haddock from Norway and thaws and processes the fish at its plan on the Portland waterfront.

"It's not about one big thing," he said of the state's Arctic connections. "It's about a lot of little things stitched together. "

Portland is an example of how points far south are slowly but steadily engaging more with a changing Arctic. But while other ports talk of a grandiose but nebulous future, Portland's doing important small things now.

Maine showcased its efforts this week as Portland hosted an Arctic Council Senior Officials meeting, the first such formal gathering in the United States outside of Alaska. More than 150 officials from eight Arctic nations, 12 observer nations and six groups representing indigenous peoples in the Arctic attended the closed-door sessions in Portland, a compact city of 67,000.

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Icelandic shipping company Eimskip hauled a shipping container to a downtown park and converted it into an art gallery to display portraits of crew members traveling between Portland and Reykjavik, Iceland, on an Eimskip vessel. The host committee invited a top chef from Greenland to prepare Greenland-inspired dishes at Vinland, a Portland restaurant that uses only Maine ingredients.

Retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Robert Papp, the U.S. special representative to the Arctic Council, took the wheel of the Bowdoin, a 96-year-old schooner, as it cruised around Casco Bay on an excursion with other council officials. The ship was built in a Maine yard specifically for Arctic exploration.

Maine's economic ties to the Arctic go back at least 4,000 years when the ancestors of the Wabanaki people traded with tribes farther north and used the Ramah chert, a stone quarried from Ramah Bay on the coast of Labrador, as a form of currency, according to researchers at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

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In the 1800s, Maine fishermen sailed to Labrador to fish cod, and Maine scientists and adventurers followed. The most famous was Admiral Robert E. Peary, a Bowdoin graduate who lived with the Inughuit of northwestern Greenland and later claimed to have reached the North Pole with his expedition in 1909. He sailed into Arctic on a Maine-built steam schooner, the Roosevelt.

Maine has several scientific institutions doing work in the Arctic, and there are a lot of opportunities for scientists in Maine and Alaska to collaborate, said Dana Eidsness, director of the Maine North Atlantic Development Office.

She noted that Maine-based Bigelow Laboratory has recently founded a new research center focused on the Arctic and that the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute has been undertaking glacial core samplings in the Arctic for more than four decades.

"These are all things we can bring to the table," she said.

The Maine National Guard has joined the effort, working with counterparts in Alaska to form an Arctic Interest Working Group that aims to bring National Guard military leaders together to collaborate and share information about training opportunities in the Arctic. In 2014, the Bangor-based 101st Air Wing of the Maine Air National Guard tested advanced communications equipment while flying with the Canadian Air Force near Goose Bay, Labrador.

Maine's interest in the Arctic ramped up in 2013 after Eimskip decided to make Portland its logistical hub for North America. The move provided Maine businesses with access to the shipper's trade network in the North Atlantic. A niche steamship line, Eimskip specializes in moving frozen fish, which gives Maine exporters and importers a direct connection to Newfoundland, Iceland, England, the Netherlands and indirect connections to Greenland, Scandinavia and as far north as Murmansk, Russia.

Hans Peter Kirkegaard, a Greenland Inuit living in Portland, said the Eimskip service now makes it possible to import supplies from Maine. Greenland, a self-governing country that is part of the Danish Realm, gets almost everything from Denmark. But Maine is 700 miles closer, he said.


Kirkegaard works as an intern at the Maine North Atlantic Development Office and has been looking at the possibility of importing building supplies to Greenland. He said Maine suppliers are knowledgeable about building in cold weather climates, and the low-key business culture here is similar to back home. A thousand years ago, timber was one of the goods that Greenland Vikings brought back with from Vinland, a section the North American coast which may have included Maine.

Eimskip's arrival in Portland also spurred King's interest in the Arctic.

Papp said he's grateful to King's enthusiasm about Arctic issues, and the decision to hold the meeting in Portland was made in part to show gratitude for Maine's junior senator.

Holding the meeting in Portland is also in line with chairmanship program's goal of raising the awareness of the Arctic with the American public, he said. He said most Americans feel disconnected from the Arctic regions of the nation, and the public's lack of interest makes it more difficult to get Congress to pay attention to Arctic issues.

While Maine has played an important historical role in Arctic exploration and research, Papp said, Maine also represents the future of the nation's Arctic involvement because increased commercial traffic through the Northwest Passage will bring more ships to the state.

"Portland is basically the first major U.S. port that ships will either come to or pass when they come from the Northwest Passage bound for other U.S. ports," he said.

He noted that China has been sending a research vessel to the Arctic in recent years and is studying how fast the sea ice is receding and the viability of Arctic sea routes. He said he believes China has concluded that it can gain and economic advantage by shipping across the north and the shipping industry will follow China's lead.

Papp's vision, however, is not shared by industry experts.


Tom Paterson, an executive with FedNav, a Canadian shipper responsible for sailing the Nunavik, an icebreaking bulk carrier, through the Northwest Passage in 2014, said that the passage will increasingly be used to move cargo that begins or ends in the Arctic, but it will not become a transit route for cargo for the foreseeable future.

Shorter distance would not make the transit quicker or cheaper, he said. Fog, storms, icebergs, growlers (submerged icebergs), shallow waters and poor charts would make transit times slower and less predictable while increasing insurance costs.

Seasonal transits may occur on an opportunistic basis, he said, but he doubts shipowners will schedule a service loaded outside the Arctic for transit through the Northwest Passage when it's safer to move cargo through the Panama Canal on huge ships.

"As for container ships, it's a pipe dream," he said. "These businesses rely on just-in-time inventory. No one would take a risk of their cargo being trapped."

Shipping companies make money when their massive ships call on numerous ports. The smaller ships required for the Northwest Passage would be less efficient to operate, and there would be no port of calls for the entire route, said Malte Humpert, executive director of the Arctic Institute, a Washington think-tank.

While Portland won't become a hub for ships traversing the Arctic, he said, Eimskip offers Maine opportunity for trade with its existing network in the North Atlantic.

"I think there's opportunity today, and we don't need to wait for 2030, 2040, or 2050," he said. "Those grandiose dreams of regular container traffic through the Arctic will not materialize."

If Arctic shipping becomes a reality, Iceland most likely would serve as a distribution hub for ice-class container vessels carrying Asian cargo bound for both Europe and North America, said Larus Isfeld, managing director of Eimskip USA. He said container ships traveling between Iceland and New York could stop in Portland to load and unload cargo for northern New England and lower shipping costs for companies in the region.

But he said the company's business plans in Portland are not contingent on the emergence of new Arctic shipping lanes.

Tom Bell is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine and a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Portland Press-Herald.  Bell this summer traveled on container ship from Maine to  Iceland. Photos and a podcast are available at

Tom Bell

Tom Bell is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He was later a reporter for the Portland Press Herald in Maine.