Stop Tankers in the Great Bear Sea

The Great Bear Sea and Rainforest – Still at Risk under Proposed Tanker Ban

Feb 23, 2017

In recent months the Federal government has announced several moves towards better marine management along the north and central coast of British Columbia, the region also called the Great Bear Sea because it borders and intertwines with the Great Bear Rainforest. Long-awaited investments in emergency and spill response capacity for coastal communities, marine protected areas network planning together with First Nations and the province, habitat restoration, and a legislated tanker ban hold the promise of lasting biodiversity protection and livelihood security for coastal peoples. But can any of these measures really protect the Great Bear Sea when large shipments of toxic petroleum products will continue to transit its waters?

The proposed tanker ban legislation (due to be introduced this March) will not affect any of the current traffic carrying petroleum products through the region. This includes 10,000 deadweight tonne tug and barge shipments to Alaska transiting the B.C. Inside Passage, on average making one return trip every ten days with no stops in Canada. These shipments are approximately four times the volume of the largest domestic fuel deliveries to communities and industry on the central and north coast of B.C., and one third of the volume spilled by the Exxon Valdes in Prince William Sound.  

In October, 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart, an articulated tug-barge (ATB) owned by Texas-based Kirby Marine Ltd., went aground near the Heiltsuk Nation community of Bella Bella on the central coast on its return trip from Alaska. Thankfully the barge was empty, but the tug itself spilled more than 100,000 litres of diesel and heavy oils in an area of extremely high commercial and cultural importance to the Heiltsuk, where over 25 species were actively harvested. Even though the spill was relatively small and occurred close to a population and marine traffic centre for the central coast, it proved nearly impossible to contain. The only recovery of petroleum product from the wreck was the result of divers being able to transfer fuels directly from the tanks of the sunken vessel. The tug remained on the reef for a month, leaking toxic fluids, surrounded by an expensive but ineffective circus of response vessels and clean-up crews. The toll that such an environmental disaster exacts on ecosystems - and indigenous communities in particular - cannot be measured or mitigated with mere dollars.

The tug and barge were among other Alaska-bound fuel barges that transit the confined and intricate Inside Passage under a special waiver, while all other tanker traffic must travel offshore from Haida Gwaii, outside the voluntary tanker exclusion zone (though that boundary is still not far enough away from shore to allow for rescue under bad conditions). Since the spill, these vessels are no longer permitted in several channels on the Inside Passage, and Kirby Corp. vessels must carry a Canadian pilot. However, they now travel the more exposed and dangerous passage through Hecate Strait (the waters between Haida Gwaii and the central and north coast archipelago). ATB vessels were originally designed for inland waterways; their seaworthiness in the 10 metre seas that often rage in shallow Hecate Strait is a major cause for concern. 

These vessels will continue to operate despite progress in other areas of marine and terrestrial protection, putting our coast at greater risk in order to preserve relations with the US. Alaska mines and refines its own crude oil. If market forces and infrastructure limitations are currently such that it is cheaper to transport refined products from Washington to southeast Alaska rather than within the state, one alternative would be to ship them in larger tankers on the outside. Once in southeast Alaska, products could be transferred to a barge and distributed to small ports.

Even if the tanker ban threshold was lowered to allow shipments in the volumes currently delivered within B.C. (under 2,000 tonnes), the ban still only applies to traffic using B.C. ports - not traffic that transits through without stopping, and it only covers persistent oil products such as crude oil and bitumen. To many of us who watch these enormous barges passing by our small, remote communities, it is clear that more must be done to protect the Great Bear Sea. While coastal communities do need improved capacity to respond to the many small spills that occur from all kinds of vessels, the only real protection is precaution: minimize shipping of toxic products. There is no spill response technology or protocol in the world that can clean up more than a small fraction of product spilled in the ocean, except perhaps under ideal conditions. 

For all the reasons that the Great Bear Rainforest deserves protection from over-exploitation, so too does the marine environment. First Nations peoples still dominate the population of the outer coast, stewarding and consuming a cornucopia of resources in their territories beyond the confines of imposed land reservations. Their collaborative efforts to establish a network of areas managed to protect biodiversity, cultural values, and a conservation-based economy are based in traditional law, and they are incredibly progressive by global standards. It’s time we bring Canadian law to bear to protect the Great Bear Sea from more unnecessary damage. 

“This is a stirring reminder that the north coast oil tanker moratorium cannot be legislated fast enough. We must take note, however, that tanker barges like this might not even be included in the ban. The ban needs to be complete, and spill response must be improved.”  - Marilyn Slett, Chief Councillor for the Heiltsuk Nation

How you can help:

1. Stand with the Heiltsuk Nation and others in demanding an immediate ban on articulated tanker barge traffic through the inside passage and Hecate Strait, as well as a permanent ban on oil tanker traffic in the Great Bear Sea. Click here to edit, sign, and send a letter to government representatives.

2. Stay tuned, and share information with your networks to gather support for the above efforts and next steps.

           Heiltsuk Tribal Council Facebook page

           10,000 Ton Tanker Facebook group


More links:

West Coast Environmental Law's review of the proposed tanker ban legislation: "Will the Pacific north coast oil tanker ban hold water?" - January, 2017

Heiltsuk Tribal Council press release: Tanker barge runs aground in Great Bear Rainforest

Coastal First Nations press release: Coastal First Nations renews call for oil tanker ban on BC coast in aftermath of Bella Bella spill

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs press release: UBCIC Stands with Heiltsuk: Alarm Over Fuel Spill Impacts to Critical Clam Beds 

For background information about the Nathan E. Stewart’s transits through the Great Bear Rainforest, please see this 3 minute video.



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