I was glued to the computer all weekend, watching the agonizingly slow progress of the tugs steaming out to the west coast of Haida Gwaii, to rescue the disabled container ship Simushir. Early Friday, it was reported that the ship had lost power only 19 nautical miles off the coast of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Cultural Area, in heavy seas with winds gusting up to 75 kph.
The National Park Reserve is one of this coast’s treasures. From an ecological perspective, it is an area of incredible biodiversity. Off the west coast, the ocean floor drops away sharply to depths of over 760 meters, while near shore, the continental shelf is home to rich kelp forests and eelgrass beds. These two, quite different ecosystems existing in such proximity mean the region is home to creatures from the deepest ocean right through to the skies—millions of seabirds either live there or use it as a rest stop in their long migrations.
|Map of Haida Gwaii habitats at risk|
The sad legacy of past oil spills is that we’re learning more every day about how oil affects different species and the news is not good. The iconic oiled seabird is just the tip of the iceberg: long term and genetic damage has now been linked to oil exposures for species as diverse as birds, otters and whales. There was a lot riding on the wind and waves this weekend; and on the progress of the several tugs headed for the Simushir.
The Simushir was carrying about 400 tonnes of bunker C fuel as well as some diesel. That’s not much, compared with the supertankers that are proposed for this coast; but it was still enough to lay waste to the west coast of Haida Gwaii. Carried along on the Alaska current, the oil would have worked its way northward, oiling steep rocky shores and the innumerable inlets and bays along this rugged coast.
Russian-flagged container ship Simushir was first reported adrift 19 km off Gowgaia Bay, South Moresby Island (Gwaii Haanas). Photo: DND Pacific Maritime Command
“Cleanup” would have been impossible in these conditions—with 4-6 meter seas and high winds, none of the conventional oil spill response equipment could have been deployed effectively. Booms would have been useless against the waves crashing ashore. Most of the oil would come ashore, fouling habitat before anything could be done. The area is far too remote and rugged to contemplate deploying crews to attempt to remove oil from the rocks and beaches.
Against this scenario, the Simushir was helpless. The nearest tug proved, happily, to be just 17 hours away and that was the Coast Guard’s Gordon Reid—a patrol vessel underpowered to tow a vessel the size of Simushir. And remember, Simushir is less than a third the size of a supertanker. The Gordon Reid might have been anywhere on the coast that day; it is pure luck that it was in Hartley Bay.
|The Gordon Reid|
I have nothing but respect and gratitude for what the crew of the Gordon Reid accomplished, with an underpowered boat and tow lines too light for the job. In that awful weather, they managed to get tow lines aboard the Simushir on three separate occasions, only to see them snap under the enormous strain of wind and waves. Nevertheless, they managed to put a little more sea room between the ship and shore, giving the crew some respite from an experience that was surely harrowing.
Still, the Canadian boats were forced to stand by and watch, waiting for an American commercial tug to put the vessel under tow. It was again pure luck that the tug Barbara Foss was heading into Prince Rupert when the emergency unfolded: the tug is usually stationed in Juan de Fuca Strait. Had it not been for this good fortune, the Simushir would have had to await a rescue tug from Alaska.
|The Barbara Foss|
Leaving Rupert by mid-day Friday, the Barbara Foss encountered Hecate Strait on one of its bad days: 6-8 meter waves and a southeast wind that blew fitfully in the 30-40 knot range, according to Environment Canada. It took the high-powered tug until Sunday to reach the drifting vessel and during all of that time, the Simushir remained at risk from a change in the wind.
A south or southeast wind was keeping the Simushir offshore for most of Friday, but when storms of this intensity blow through they generally bring changing wind patterns. A shift to westerly was predicted and that would have driven the ship toward shore. Depending on wind speed, the Gordon Reid might, or might not, have been able to keep her off the rocks. The best they’d been able to do when towing with the wind was 1.5-2 knots. It’s unlikely that they’d have made any headway at all towing against the wind.
Tugs like the Barbara Foss are expensive and the crew’s training is highly specialized for ocean rescue and ship salvage. In years past, it may have been good sense for Canada to rely on our neighbour to provide rescue services—they were the ones with the commercial vessel traffic that needed the rescue capacity and so why not let them pay for it, and borrow it when needed? But the volume of shipping passing through Canadian waters has increased dramatically over the past decade and capacity to respond to it has not. If anything, capacity has been decreased by federal cuts to Coast Guard.
To be clear, we have never had towing capacity for ships of the size that now regularly ply our waters. Response times being what they are from the U.S., it is now clear that we need that capacity. It’s also clear that we need some public dialogue on where to locate any new tug. I would vote for Haida Gwaii—it’s right on the shipping route and closest to the worst waters on our coast.
In addition to a salvage tug, we need:
- Agreement on “places of refuge”—protected areas where ships in distress can shelter, potentially putting those areas at risk of a spill;
- A legislated zone of protection, through which ships do not pass—wide enough to ensure that if they lose power like the Simushir did, they cannot drift into shore before a tug can get to them;
- Investment in recruitment and training for coast guard rescue capacity; and
- A ban on oil tankers on the North Coast.