Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Canada’s inability to rescue ship adrift puts Gwaii Haanas at risk

October 17, 2014

Living Oceans lambasted the federal government today for its repeated failure to provide for safe navigation on B.C.’s North Coast, citing the imminent risk of the container ship Simushir grounding along the treacherous outer coast of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.

“The failure to provide for rescue tug capacity on the North Coast puts these incredibly sensitive marine ecosystems at unacceptable risk from shipping,” said Executive Director Karen Wristen.

The Simushir was following the same course intended for oil tankers leaving the proposed Kitimat terminal of the Northern Gateway Project. While oil tankers generally observe a 'Voluntary Exclusion Zone', staying well off the coast to guard against grounding in the event of a power failure, container ships such as the Simushir may be found transiting nearer to shore. The Simushir has the capacity to carry 500 tonnes of bunker C fuel. Canada has no tugs with the capacity to tow or hold large vessels offshore in sea conditions that often pertain on the North Coast. Coast Guard vessel Gordon Reid, also en route to the Simushir’s position, is a mid-coast patrol vessel without capacity to tow the ship.

“Incidents like this illustrate why the moratorium on tanker traffic on the North Coast was put in place,” said Wristen. “It is pure luck that the private U.S. tug Barbara Foss, normally stationed near Juan de Fuca, was in Prince Rupert when this was reported. Even so, at the present time, it appears that the tug will not be able to reach the vessel before tomorrow morning. It is facing six to eight meter seas in Hecate Strait today with another storm predicted for tomorrow. The wind is predicted to shift to a westerly and when that happens, the Simushir is so close to shore that it may well ground.”

The waters off the western coastline of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site are uniquely productive habitat. There, the continental shelf is narrow and drops off abruptly to extremely deep waters. These diverse habitats support over 20 species of whales and dolphins, porpoises, harbour seals and Steller sea lions. The area is also rich in sea birds and the islands are a stopping point for millions of migratory birds. “Many of the species found in this area are listed as species of special concern, threatened or endangered,” said Wristen.

Bunker C is a heavy oil, although lighter than the diluted bitumen planned for the Northern Gateway project. In heavy seas, it will prove difficult to track and impossible to contain with booms or pick up with skimmers.

“If this oil reaches the remote, rocky shores of Gwaii Haanas, cleanup will be impossible,” said Wristen. “Marshalling the numbers of people and the amount of equipment that would be required to deal with oiled shoreline in such a remote area is a task for which Canada is completely unprepared.”

Canada’s announcement this week of a $20 million investment in the Smart Ocean Initiative’s data collection programme was billed as an investment in ‘world class tanker safety.’

“It is an excellent investment and we are delighted for the Ocean Networks Canada Programme,” said Wristen. “But to bill this as an investment in world class tanker safety when we don’t even have a tug capable of protecting our most valuable cultural and ecological treasures is more than a bit cynical.”


Contact Information

Karen Wristen
Executive Director
Cell: 604-788-5634
Phone: 604-696-5044
Skype: karenwristen


The federal announcement this week

OTTAWA—The Harper government announced Tuesday a $20-million, three-year pledge to fund a program that will use information from the University of Victoria's internationally-recognized oceanographic data collection program to help Canada develop a "world-class" tanker safety system.

The contribution, announced at the Vancouver Aquarium by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, goes to the Smart Ocean Initiative being run by the university's Ocean Networks Canada program.

ONC, launched in 2006 and funded primarily by the federal and B.C. governments and IBM Canada, includes land- and ocean floor-based observatories connected by more than 850 kilometres of cables.

The program's website describes one of the organization's key long-term goals as being the search for a "deeper understanding of how large-scale, climate-related changes are impacting British Columbia waters."

ONC also promises to provide more rapid and therefore potentially life-saving information to the public on natural disasters, especially earthquakes and tsunamis.


  • Map of Haida Gwaii habitats at risk
  • Simushir - The disabled container ship. Russian-flagged container ship Simushir was first reported this morning 19 km off Gowgaia Bay, South Moresby Island (Gwaii Haanas). Photo: © Erwin Poelstra
  • A mid-shore patrol vessel, the Gordon Reid is not equipped to tow a vessel the size of the Simushir. Photo: KenWalker
  • The Barbara Foss - Nearest tug boat