Fuel from abandoned vessel impacts Burgoyne shellfish
Shellfish harvesting at Burgoyne Bay was closed by emergency order on Thursday, Jan. 21 and will remain so until further notice as a result of a marine fuel spill.
While harvesting in the inner part of the harbour is prohibited year-round due to sanitary contamination, the emergency closure extends the zone as far as Daffodil Point on the northern side of the bay. The effects of the spill may also extend to other marine species, putting pressure on limited resources and threatening First Nations’ access to their traditional fisheries.
“We have real interest in taking a leadership role in trying to respond to this specific issue and how to build a process to prevent this from happening in the future,” said Cowichan Tribes biologist Tim Kulchyski. “We want to limit, if not eliminate, these types of spills because it’s happening so frequently that it has impacted our ability to harvest.”
According to the Canadian Coast Guard, a vessel with an unknown owner that is moored in Burgoyne Bay shifted during a storm earlier in January and began discharging pollutants in the marine environment.
“Coast Guard Environmental Response assessed the vessel on Jan. 14 and concluded the vessel was a threat to pollute due to its listing to port side and fuel onboard. To mitigate the threat to pollute, approximately 125 litres of diesel was recovered from the vessel,” the agency said.
Environmental response teams did not observe pollution in the Burgoyne Bay waters after Thursday, Jan. 21. They deemed the vessel as a low threat to pollute and handed the file over to Coast Guard’s Vessels of Concern Program.
Kulchyski observed Burgoyne Bay with its former Xwaaqw’um village site is right in the middle of Cowichan Tribes’ core territory. Elders refer to Sansum Narrows as their community’s grocery store, but multiple shellfish closures have reduced possibilities in nearby waters.
Cowichan elder Tousilum remembers how people used to say, “When the tide’s out, the table is ready,” but that’s no longer the case. Cowichan Bay, for example, has been closed to shellfish harvesting for 48 years.
As well, spills can harm food species that aren’t monitored as closely as shellfish, such as crabs and urchins. For these reasons, fuel spills that may not seem like a big issue compared to some the Coast Guard responds to can have a major impact on First Nations’ seafood harvesting.
“It’s sounding a death knell for those harvests, because the resources are so limited,” Kulchyski said. “It’s no longer practical. And for our community, it’s a way of life. The entirety of Cowichan territory is quite heavily impacted.”
The impact of houseboats at Xwaaqw’um has been identified as a concern by the Salt Spring-based Stqeeye’ Learning Society, of which Kulchyski is a board member and Tousilum is chair. Tousilum said he often likes to walk the beach at low tide. His uncle in his 90s can remember when the beach was clean and white with shells — a stark difference to how it looks today.
“When I see a bunch of boats on the beach and wheelbarrows and little floats; when I see the many ropes tied to the trees, who is responsible for that?” Tousilum asked. “Just the anchors alone, how much other damage has happened to the bay already? And what is happening to the sewage? It just infuriates me.”
The issue of abandoned boats and how to deal with them has been a growing problem all along the B.C. coast, as cheaper fibreglass vessels reach the end of their lifespan at the same time that housing pressures have forced more people to seek alternative options.
Salt Spring resident John Roe helped remove three derelict vessels from Burgoyne Bay in 2019 with the Dead Boats Disposal Society and federal funding support. He said his group will be doing more surveying this March and will most likely be back for further vessel clean-up in April thanks to B.C. government stimulus spending under the Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative Fund.
“We’re compiling information and making applications right now. We intend to take around 150 boats this year out of the Salish Sea and the Islands Trust area,” Roe said.
Roe has also been talking with the Stqeeye’ Learning Society about a long-term plan for Burgoyne. The society said they support and appreciate Roe’s efforts and look forward to strengthening the relationship.
Tousilum said he wants to start contacting the provincial and federal governments to come up with a solution at Xwaaqw’um, and said the local community also has a part to play.
“Salt Spring Island is strong with people coming together and good things are happening, but this is 10 or 100 steps back,” he said. “We’re having a look at it now. Let’s wake Salt Spring up and let’s do it. It’s time for us all to come together to work with one mind and one heart to save the bay before it’s too late.”
Anyone who has a boat that is no longer seaworthy but can’t afford to deal with it is encouraged to contact the Dead Boats Disposal Society and sign over ownership rather than abandoning the vessel to become a wreck. Call Roe at 250-383-2086 for more information.
Editor’s note: A resident of the Burgoyne Bay area notes that the vessel in question was not from the bay.