First in a two-part series
For South Pender Island resident Jeff Tarris, it’s hard to ignore what he calls “the elephants in the room.”
The “elephants” are huge cargo ships that sail from across the Pacific Ocean en route to the Port of Vancouver. The “room” is Plumper Sound, the sheltered waters between Pender and Saturna islands which Tarris’ home faces.
One week this winter, the elephant was the 299-metre (980-foot) long Hisui Horizon from Japan that took up residence in Plumper Sound Anchorage D, half a nautical mile from the Tarris family’s living room window. Last week it was the Oriental Navigator, from Korea, at 289 metres. A football field is about 110 metres in length.
Vessels like the Hisui Horizon and Oriental Navigator are not quiet elephants. According to members of the Plumper Sound Protection Association (PSPA), their diesel generators run 24/7, their anchor chains and engines are noisy, and crews frequently engage in ship maintenance activities. They worry about dragging anchors damaging seabeds, and impacts on birds and marine life. Perhaps worst of all, the ships have blindingly bright lights that masters seem reluctant to turn off, down or towards the ship decks rather than the islands they are parked beside.
Tarris compares the intensity of the lights to the argon carbon spotlights of the Pacific National Exhibition’s “olden days.”
“It would be akin to having a car parked outside your window through the night with its high beams going,” he adds.
Tarris said he has found some relief in calling staff at the Pacific Pilotage Authority, a Crown corporation that escorts the ships to the anchorages, but it is mostly short-lived. He is always assured that the ship’s agent will be contacted, and that the agent will pass on the request to have the blaring lights dimmed.
But Tarris says most times the lights continue to blaze away.
INTERIM ANCHORAGES PROTOCOL
Tarris and other Islands Trust-Area residents hope that Transport Canada’s Interim Protocol for the Use of Southern B.C. Anchorages, which was released to the public on Feb. 16, will help alleviate their increasing frustration with sharing Gulf Islands waters with an international shipping industry.
The new protocol, to be reviewed after a six-month trial period, gives the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority responsibility for assigning ships to some 30 anchorage spots in an area stretching from south of Gabriola Island to Plumper Sound. The idea is to rotate the anchorage use more evenly, and more clearly outline responsibilities of ships at anchor. And now when Gulf Islands residents have complaints about vessel activities in their neighbourhood, they will call or email the VFPA instead of the pilotage authority. Data will be collected and analyzed.
The interim protocol is part of the federal government’s $1.5-billion, five-year Oceans Protection Plan (OPP). The plan aims to “improve marine safety and responsible shipping, protect Canada’s marine environment, strengthen partnerships with Indigenous communities and invest in science for evidence-based decision-making.”
ADVOCATING FOR CHANGE
Bruce McConchie, a South Pender Islands Trust trustee, said getting the anchorages issue included in the OPP is one positive outcome of lobbying done by the Islands Trust and community groups. In addition to Pender-based PSPA, there’s Gabriolans Against Freighter Anchorages, Anchorages Concern Thetis and the Cowichan Bay Ship Watch Society.
Anchorage D has unfortunately been excluded from the interim protocol.
“It’s probably the worst anchorage for light and noise,” said McConchie.
Anchorage D was created in 2016 to accommodate extra-large ships like the Hisui Horizon. It’s also an “MOA” — materials offloading anchorage — used to transfer gypsum from Canadian Shipping Lines bulk carriers onto barges, which takes place about 16 times per year. McConchie says the noisy, 12-hour process often begins in the middle of the night.
Pender residents are justifiably nervous about the potential for accidents. In 1994, a gypsum barge flipped over in Plumper Sound. On Nov. 18, 2009, the Hebei Lion dragged its anchor in a windstorm and ended up on Conconi Reef. With an estimated million litres of heavy oil on board, it could have been an environmental disaster. Two similar incidents occurred in 2010 and 2011.
Islands Trust Council began seriously advocating for change in 2015. That’s when Trust Council chair Peter Luckham first wrote to federal Transportation Minister Marc Garneau to flag the issue.
“The growing industrialization of our region through increased anchorage use is contributing to loss of residents’ quality of life and the region’s character. Concerns that the Salish Sea is being exploited as a parking lot are growing and the use is contrary to our expectations for this special place.”
Garneau responded that Transport Canada was “well aware of the growing pressures being placed on anchorages in the Southern Gulf Islands and is engaged in an ongoing review.”
A working group of industry and national government agencies was subsequently formed, and the interim anchorages protocol, National Anchorages Strategy and Oceans Protection Plan are three resulting initiatives.
Three weeks ago Luckham and Garneau discussed the anchorage issue face to face in Ottawa. How did Luckham feel after that conversation?
“Well, they have to deliver . . . but I believe thoroughly that you have to have hope because otherwise there is just despair and I am not really interested in that.”
MORE AND BIGGER SHIPS
According to the Islands Trust, in 2009, 23 ships anchored in the Gulf Islands area for an average of 6.7 days each. By 2014, that number had grown to 170 ships staying for an average of 9.3 days.
“The problem is there are more ships and bigger ships,” said McConchie.
Chris Straw is president of Gabriolans Against Freighter Anchorages, which formed in response to a proposal in 2015 to add five anchorages to the north-east shore of Gabriola Island. Straw points out that spots where ships could safely anchor in the islands were determined way back in the 1970s, but no one could ever have envisioned how often they are used now and how gargantuan the anchored vessels would be.
“For years those anchorages were hardly used at all,” observed Straw.
While GAFA’s focus has been to prevent the establishment of new anchorages, a few of the existing ones in Pylades Channel off Gabriola also impact that island’s residents.
What are giant freighters doing in the ecologically sensitive Islands Trust Area in the first place? They are waiting for space at the Port of Vancouver, the fourth largest port in North America based on tonnage handled, mainly to pick up grain from the Prairies. The Gulf Islands provide a safe place for vessels to anchor.
And with marine waters being under federal government jurisdiction, the Trust holds no sway; nor does the provincial government.
“It’s like a big loophole,” said Straw.
“In Canada, outside a port authority’s jurisdiction, vessels of any size have the right to navigate, and anchor, wherever it is safe to do so,” confirmed Danielle Jang, spokesperson for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.
Straw points out the resulting disconnect between people’s image of the Islands Trust area as a pristine area for environmental protection and recreation, and its use as a parking lot for huge cargo vessels.
“My feeling is that most people don’t think, ‘That’s the place where they anchor all those ships.”
“They bluntly tell us it is only going to get worse,” said McConchie. “We’re trying to fight the Goliath.”
This story was published in the March 7, 2018 Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper. Part II, which was published March 14, will be posted online by March 19.