Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Oceans Update March 2019

Letter from Executive Director Karen Wristen

Recent press out of the oil patch suggests the industry has realized it needs to step up the pace at which it vilifies anyone who dares to speak out against tarsands expansion or pipeline and tanker projects. This is probably because some of the players have gone off-script of late, making a bit of a mess out of that perfectly constructed fable about how the “price differential” is costing Canadians bazillions of dollars every day it persists.

The fact is, the major oil companies who own their own refineries make a killing from that price differential, ‘buying’ their Canadian bitumen cheaply at their US refineries pocketing the profits in Trump’s tax-reduced America. Now how are you going to convince the public that the oil industry is going to fold its Canadian tent when your public financial statements show you’re rolling in dough?

Cue the conspiracy theorists one more time:  it’s foreign-funded activists trying to bolster the US oil industry by destroying Canada’s. It plays well to the base, as they say. And “how else will we fund hospitals, schools and health care?” they ask repeatedly.

If Canada really has no other way than oil revenues to fund things so vital to the Canadian identity as public health care and education, then we have a much larger problem on our hands than whether or not to build another pipeline. Oil revenue will disappear, whether because world leaders get smart enough to put the brakes on cooking the planet, or because it’s a non-renewable resource that will be exhausted.  Future generations of Canadians will want health care and education, I’m sure; but the industry rhetoric suggests we have no way to secure that for them.

The good news is that, like so much else coming out of the oil patch these days, the argument is smoke and mirrors.  Oil revenues make up only about 2% of our gross domestic product according to Natural Resources Canada’s 2017 figures; that number has been plummeting for a decade and it’s even lower today. Despite rising production levels, the return to Canadians has dropped like a stone.

I hope you’ll enjoy this issue of Oceans Update, reading on to find out what’s really up with pipeline and tanker issues; and what we’ve been doing with your generous support.

Tanker Ban Taking a Beating in Senate

Executive Director Karen Wristen was invited to testify on the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, Bill C-48, which is currently before the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications. The Committee appears to be hopelessly mired in partisan squabbling and questions from the Senators certainly reflected Conservative Party support for the oil industry’s push-back against the Bill.

The Big Oil/Conservative Party line seems to be that there’s no difference in conditions of navigation between the east and west coasts, so no justification for a tanker ban on Canada’s north and central Pacific coast.  “It makes no sense to suggest we should degrade the north and central coast just because the East Coast has suffered about a thousand years of human intervention,” Karen observed in response. It is simply untrue that the two coasts offer comparable conditions of navigation:  Hecate Strait is the world’s fourth most dangerous body of water and no place for tankers to navigate.

Conservative Committee Chair David Tkachuk (Sask) pulled out the old nugget about foreign-funded radicals intent on destroying Canada’s oil industry for the benefit of the US oil industry.  “Where do you get your funding?” he demanded angrily, trying to make it sound like there was something to hide.  “From people just like you,” Karen responded, earning the first laugh of the session.

The Bill is sponsored in the Senate by Independent Senator Mobina Jaffer (BC), whose questions drew out issues of tanker safety and oil spill preparedness, topics on which Living Oceans commissioned expert evidence for the Northern Gateway hearings. That evidence is now before the Committee and shows clearly that double-hulled tankers are no protection against the occurrence of an accident, though they may reduce the volume of oil spilled. 

Senators enquiring into a compromise, in which a shipping lane for tankers might be established through the moratorium area, learned that the wave height alone in the region would preclude spill recovery up to 98 percent of the time in winter and up to 65 percent of the time in summer. “You can plan all you want for spill recovery,” said Karen, “but Mother Nature bats last.”

The Committee has agreed to travel to Terrace and Prince Rupert to hear from local witnesses in April, and to wrap up its deliberations by the end of that month. Members of the Committee have accused the Chair of trying to ensure that the Bill dies on the order paper when government prorogues for the election in the fall.

What Will Sea Level Rise Mean in Your Community?

Living Oceans kicked off its Sea Level Rise project this fall, running community workshops in partnership with the Islands Trust on Galiano, Salt Spring, Pender and Lasqueti Islands. Interest in the various adaptation strategies for dealing with SLR is high within the Trust area, where policy requires solutions that work with nature to the greatest extent possible.

Our workshops begin with a presentation explaining the mechanisms at play that are beginning to accelerate the rate of SLR and outlining the main adaptation strategies available. Participants are then asked to identify areas where they know already that rising water levels pose or will pose a problem; and also to identify key community assets that may be placed at risk. The workshop introduces participants to a series of online tools they can use to carry on with community dialogue, risk assessment and development of planning options prior to taking steps to secure lands and community infrastructure.

One of the problems common to most B.C. communities is that they do not have access to topographical data that is sufficiently finely resolved to be able to map the projected water levels. The Province asks communities to plan for a .5-meter increase in sea level by 2050, a 1-meter increase by 2100 and 2 meters by 2200, but establishing where the new water line will be can be challenging without precise topographical data. Our online resource documents lead interested communities to funding resources and practitioners to take this next step, to support certainty in any regulatory process to follow.

Our goal was to begin engaging citizens in planning for SLR and to describe the processes that should be followed to ensure decisions are made in a timely way, and with a view to minimizing both economic and environmental costs. We will now look for funding to be able to follow up with these communities, to support them as needed to keep the process moving along.

Workshops attracted people from a wide range of backgrounds and with extremely varied expectations and concerns. There was some pushback about ‘fear-mongering’ from those who simply don’t believe that sea levels are rising, or at least that they are doing so on a time scale that requires action today. There is clear evidence that sea levels in B.C. have been rising in most communities and our presentation includes that data; but some people still resist believing it requires action.

To those people we say, consider the life expectancy of important community infrastructure like ferry docks, wharves and warehouses; or of commercial oceanfront buildings like hotels and marinas. If SLR adaptation is to be achieved at least cost and with greatest efficiency, it will be done by incorporating planning for it in the planning horizon for major repair, renovation or replacement of those kinds of infrastructure.

The Provincial recommendation is to plan, first of all, for a .5 meter rise in sea level by 2050. This means we have a 30-year window in which to assess and plan for the relocation of key waterfront assets as they become due for major repairs or replacement. That really requires us to start now, by ensuring that the impacted areas are identified and nothing built in them in future that would increase exposure to SLR; as well as working with senior levels of government, B.C. Ferries and other stakeholders to ensure that plans are in place to safeguard community assets.

Many issues were raised by workshop participants, mostly centered around understanding the guidelines for building setbacks. Setbacks used to be expressed as the greater of a horizontally-measured 15 meters and a vertically-measured 1.5 meters from the ‘natural boundary’ or visible high water line. The Province’s 2018 guidelines stress the need for competent engineering assessment of the “Natural Boundary of the sea at Year 2100” and the “Year 2100 Flood Construction Level”, and recommend a setback of at least 15 meters from the greater of the two. This assessment incorporates the anticipated 1 meter rise in sea level and adjusts for changes in the level of the land, storm surge, wave effect and site-specific issues of exposure and erosion.  The provincial guidelines also stress the need to review setbacks at least every ten years, as new scientific understanding of the rate of sea level rise is published.

Coastal communities face varying degrees of risk, depending on shoreline profiles and what resources are located at the ocean: land interface. We believe it’s in everyone’s best interest that the risk be assessed now and that planning should begin for solutions that don’t leave citizens facing enormous tax bills for emergency or reactive expenses…or under water!

Project resources can be found on our website. This project is part of the Ecology Action Centre’s ECoAS project and is funded in part by a financial contribution from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. In B.C., the project has also been supported by the Islands Trust and the Real Estate Foundation of B.C.

Curb Your Enthusiasm For Shrimp Cocktail?

Living Oceans is working with retailers to assess the risk associated with shrimp procurement, in the wake of a recent investigative report by CBC’s Marketplace.  That report discovered antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria on frozen shrimp sampled from Canadian food retailers, including bacteria commonly associated with human diseases. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) states antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is an increasingly “serious threat” to human health. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics, both in agriculture and aquaculture, have been identified as contributors to AMR.

Sustainable Seafood Campaigner Kelly Roebuck investigated antibiotic use in global shrimp farming practices. looking at Seafood Watch shrimp assessments and the assessment criteria of various eco-certifications.  Her findings will make you wary of buying shrimp unless the country of origin is clearly marked.

“Around half of all shrimp in the Canadian marketplace is imported. The majority comes from Asian countries such as Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Some shrimp are also imported from Latin America countries such as Ecuador, Honduras or Mexico.   Most Asian countries were found to have either ineffective antibiotic regulations or none at all. Evidence of illegal use of antibiotics, including those listed as “critically and highly important” by WHO, occurs in a number of shrimp-producing countries. Yet, only rarely is the country of origin marked on the product label,” said Kelly.  “With the majority of shrimp ranked as ‘red’,  only a few of the products from these countries earns a ‘green’ or ‘yellow’ ranking from Seafood Watch -  and then only for certain production methods.  Without full disclosure of which species, where and how the product was produced, consumers can’t easily identify the more sustainable seafood products.” This is largely due to Canada’s weak seafood labelling laws which, unfortunately, do not require such vital information be provided to consumers.

Eco-certifications might be considered to be protection against dangerous production practices, but even that is not always so.  Only the Aquaculture Stewardship Certification’s (ASC) shrimp standard and Naturland (organic aquaculture standard) eco-labels promise antibiotic-free product.  Under other eco-certification and organic schemes, antibiotic use may be regulated only by national law (where it exists) and no limitations on the quantity or nature of the antibiotics used is imposed by the eco-label’s standards.

“What this means is that there are some shrimp farms where it is routine to use antibiotics considered to be important or even critical to human health; and in places such as Vietnam, where the drugs can be obtained without prescription, to use them in unknown quantities,” said Kelly.  “This is the perfect kind of breeding ground for AMR superbugs.”

Green ranked farmed shrimp does exist. For example, shrimp from closed recirculating aquaculture systems are considered a “Best Choice” (green).  And while some pond-farmed shrimp from certain regions are yellow-ranked as they are believed to use low to moderate quantities of antibiotics (for example South and Central America); yet still, these regions can use types of antibiotics that are important/critical to human health.  Therefore, yellow ranking is no guarantee that superbugs aren’t being created by the aquaculture techniques.

While Canada prohibits the use of antibiotics in shrimp culture and does some testing of imported product, Marketplace learned that only about 5 percent of imports are actually tested, leaving a huge gap for antibiotic-laden product to enter the country.  As for AMR superbugs:  there is no testing at all for these.

This leaves both retailers and consumers with a conundrum.  The market in North America for shrimp and prawn is huge, so retailers naturally want to offer a consistent supply; but very few places can reliably supply safe and sustainable product. “Even operations that avoid using antibiotics are associated with other conservation concerns, such as depletion of wild stocks and the degradation of mangrove swamps,” Kelly observes. “Waiting for wild B.C. shrimp and prawns and accepting that this is a seasonal treat is probably the best answer.  It’s hard to know what else to do, beyond curbing your enthusiasm for the tasty crustaceans.”

But the issue isn’t exclusive to farmed shrimp. Antibiotics is regularly used in other cultured seafood, from pangasius (catfish), to tilapia and even farmed salmon in B.C. and Chile. “Perhaps yet another reason for us to be supporting the real unsung sustainable heroes of the aquaculture world – bivalves and seaweed -which among other environmental benefits, do not require antibiotics at all,” concludes Kelly.


Pipelines, Prevarication and Politics

It will be no surprise to you that the National Energy Board has reconfirmed its recommendation that the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMEP) should proceed. We knew that was coming from the day the Reconsideration Hearing was announced, with timelines that were so unrealistically short that it was almost impossible to retain and instruct experts to provide meaningful additional evidence about marine impacts.  The documents flew thick and fast, with new filings being made at the same time as our experts were attempting to digest and respond.  If we thought the process a travesty before the Reconsideration, we can now say with confidence that it is utterly broken.

The next big question to which you likely don’t need to be told the answer is, “what will the ultimate decision-maker (the Canadian federal government, represented by Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet) say to the owner of the pipeline (same) about whether or not the project is in the public interest?” We await only the government’s determination that it has met the consultation requirements laid down by the Federal Court of Appeal, before the final decision is announced.

Meantime, the oil industry has been actively soliciting media about the usual—how the project is essential if we expect to continue to pay for schools and health care; and how much more money we’ll all make if they can only increase shipments to China.  (Alert:  this would be the prevarication referred to above.)

The fact is that the federal government’s revenue from oil and gas is a tiny and shrinking portion of its total income and the entire oil and gas industry represents only 2% of employment, most of it in part-time construction jobs.  Government royalties from the sector have decreased 63 percent since 2000; corporate tax revenue by 51 percent.  If it were true that we depend on this revenue for the future of health care and education, we’d have a much larger problem on our hands than how to bring the sector in line with our commitments to reduce carbon pollution. The social fabric of the country would be at risk.

The other fact is that oil shipments to China over the past decade from Burnaby’s Westridge terminal can be counted on the fingers of two hands.  The last few tankers to make that trip did so in mid-2018, when oil prices were ranging from $40-54 bbl.  Statistics Canada valued the exports at $51 bbl, putting the lie to the argument about tidewater access giving rise to higher prices and greater revenues for all.

And finally, politics:  China has demonstrated time and again that its import policies are dictated by the state, not the market.  The Chinese state is more than a bit miffed with Canada just now, over the arrest of Huawei CEO Sabrina Meng Wanzhou; and it has expressed its dismay by (among other things) refusing to import Canadian canola shipments it alleges were contaminated.  This seems an unlikely political climate in which to kick off a robust trade with China in just about anything; and certainly not in oil, with which that nation continues to be richly supplied by virtue of the cash-for-oil deals it struck with several oil-producing nations over the past decade.

The last word on whether or not the TMEP is ever built may yet go to the Federal courts.  Our counsel at Ecojustice have reviewed the NEB recommendation report and find it still suffers from the same error we raised in our last court challenge: it recommends condoning the admitted adverse effects of tanker traffic on Southern Resident Killer Whales, saying these effects are “justified in the circumstances”.  Living Oceans has maintained that a listed Species at Risk is entitled by law to be protected from adverse effects. Depending on how the federal Cabinet proceeds, it may well find the matter back before the courts facing more challenges from both conservation organizations and First Nations.

Clear the Coast 2019

We start another season of marine debris work March 30, with a drive-in visit to Grant Bay.  Volunteers organized by the Victoria Maritime Museum will accompany Executive Director Karen Wristen to see what the winter’s storms washed up.  Grant Bay is one of those west coast Vancouver Island beaches that acts like a giant catcher’s mitt, collecting debris with every tide.  Living Oceans has been restoring habitat on this beach for several years.

This trip is in support of the Maritime Museum, that will shortly launch a new exhibit featuring ocean plastic pollution.  Living Oceans has been working with them to create a video presentation that will accompany the display of the Grant Bay debris.

We are greatly indebted to Boating B.C. Association and Island Therapeutics, both of which provided sponsorships to assist with some of our outlay for this work.  The funds provided should help fuel the new work boat donated at the end of last year by C-Tow Marine Assistance, which should help us get into some new areas that we haven’t been able to reach with Karen’s or Rob’s sailboats or the small, open tenders that we’ve been using to get to remote shorelines.

That said, the majority of the funding we require is still unconfirmed and it is uncertain that we will be able to heli-lift debris out of the unroaded areas of Cape Scott, where we have recovered between 3-10 tonnes of debris each year since 2014.

“There is no shortage of volunteer help for these trips,” said Karen.  “People are only too glad to help with the work, but we need to be able to provide food and water, first aid, cooking facilities and all the cleanup supplies.  That, together with the planning and organizing that goes into these large expeditions, demands focused staff time.”  Finding funders willing to continue to pay to remediate a problem that doesn’t seem to have an end is becoming increasingly challenging.

Canada has committed funding to assist other nations to deal with plastic waste issues and that is a very good step toward reducing the extent of the problem.  But right here at home, fishing and aquaculture practices are littering our beaches with dangerous plastics including miles of rope and netting, that simply has to be removed when it washes ashore.

“Plastics that aren’t picked up from beaches when they strand are only going to refloat on the next tide,” said Karen.  “Worse, before they refloat they are ground up by the action of waves working them against logs and rocks; so that when they refloat, they’re in pieces small enough to eat.”

The most recent research has begun to link the chemicals contained in and on the plastics with impacts on various species. The physical presence of plastics in the flesh of many seafoods is not thought to pose a risk to human health, because of the miniscule quantities in which it is found.  For the marine creatures themselves, those quantities are often far more significant; research is only beginning to uncover the extent of impacts throughout marine life.

To support this year’s efforts to Clear the Coast, please click here.  Thank you!