By Alex Binkley

The Vancouver-based Clear Seas Centre intends to chart a course that will establish its credibility as an independent authority on shipping in Canada.

Launched in July with $3.7 million in federal funding and widespread industry support, the Centre has commissioned studies into the risks posed by commercial ship traffic and the economic importance of maritime transportation to the national economy. The studies and other research the Centre plans are aimed at establishing Clear Seas’ credibility, Executive Director Richard Wiefelspuett said in an interview. “The Centre’s activities will support the government’s commitment to protect Canada’s coasts and to enhance marine safety through tanker safety systems that aim to strengthen ship source spill prevention, preparedness and response.”

The Council of Canadian Academics is to release a report next March about the state of marine shipping in general as well as risks associated with transportation of a wide range of ship types and cargoes in the various regions of the country, including coastal British Columbia, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, the East Coast and the Canadian Arctic. “This report will lay the groundwork needed for further assessments on risk characterization, analysis, and communication related to marine shipping in Canadian waters,” Wiefelspuett says. “Now, more than ever, there is a need for informed dialogue regarding marine shipping, based on unbiased research.”

The Council is to provide a second report in 2017 on the value of shipping to Canada. “The high standard of living that many Canadians enjoy is dependent, in part, on Canada’s involvement in global trade. Marine shipping is vital to the competitiveness of Canadian commodity exports and is a linchpin in many Canadian supply chains.” This scheduled second report “will quantify the economic impacts and qualitatively examine the social impacts and downstream benefits and challenges of marine shipping in Canada,” he adds. “These results will fill an important gap in understanding the real value of Canadian commercial marine shipping and will inform future decision-making on marine shipping in Canada.

“Independent research will be the foundation of our mandate, which is essential to the credibility of our organization,” adds Wiefelspuett, a naval architect with more than 30 years of widely varied experience in the maritime sector. “With oversight provided by a diverse and experienced Board of Directors, the Centre will operate under guiding principles that include openness, objectivity, excellence, and unbiased research and engagement.”

The Centre’s Board includes Kate Moran, President and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada, Bud Streeter, a former Transport Canada marine safety expert and now President of Lloyd’s Register Canada Ltd. and Duncan Wilson, Vice-President of Corporate Social Responsibility at Port Metro Vancouver.

The Canadian shipping industry has welcomed the launch of Clear Seas. Mike Broad, President of the Shipping Federation of Canada, says, “Our view is that the Centre will play a positive role in making sure the facts about the shipping industry – particularly the prevention, preparedness and response capabilities to safety and environmental risks – are out in the public domain. People in general, and particularly those in coastal communities, need to know there are processes and systems in place to protect the waters in and around their towns and cities. The shipping industry is not well known by the public and since most of us never see a ship up close – unlike trucks, trains and planes – there is a lack of awareness that it is a very regulated business with plenty of checks and balances.”

“Time will tell if it is to be considered a success, but the people involved are very credible, knowledgeable and have different backgrounds and skills, so we believe it will serve both the industry and the public well.”

Robert Lewis-Manning, President of the Canadian Shipowners Association, says the Centre “will fill a current gap in providing independent science-based research regarding the interaction of marine transportation in the environment of our coastal and inland waters. With this independent analysis, stakeholders and government should be empowered to make better policy, operational, and commercial decisions. “Canadian shipowners are supportive of initiatives, such as this one, to increase the awareness of stakeholders about the positive aspects of Canadian short-sea-shipping,” he adds. Shipowners are confident that research will demonstrate that domestic shipping has the lowest environmental footprint of any transportation mode, and that existing safety regulations and industry best practises continue to protect our sensitive costal ecosystems. “As safety and protection of the marine environment is paramount to commercial success, Canadian shipowners are engaged in a process of continuous learning. The Clear Seas mandate will support this effort through unique and independent analysis.”

Since the idea for Clear Seas was first raised by Port Metro Vancouver two years ago, discussions about it have taken place with the marine shipping sector, Port Authorities, First Nations, nongovernmental organizations, coastal communities, and other stakeholders concerned about marine shipping risks, prevention, preparedness, and response strategies for Canada’s coastlines and waterways, Wiefelspuett notes. Originally the Centre’s focus was to be on tanker safety, he adds. The prospect of increased tanker traffic “is a very sensitive topic on the West Coast. Anything to do with energy creates public concern.” “However during an extensive engagement process involving discussions with the marine shipping sector, Port Authorities, First Nations, NGO’s, coastal communities, and other stakeholders concerned about marine shipping risks, it was decided to extend our mandate to shipping in general and all of Canada’s coastlines and waterways,” he notes.

Wiefelspuett said few people realize tanker movements are more closely regulated and monitored than bulk and other shipments. “To focus only on oil tankers off the coast of British Columbia would ignore risks from other sectors in other regions of Canada and we would lose the opportunity to provide a full understanding of marine activity across the country.”

According to Transport Canada, total marine freight traffic in Canada experienced an average annual growth rate of 1.1 per cent between 2001 and 2010, and reached 475 million tonnes in 2012, the latest year for which data were available. Marine transportation services in 2013 carried $205 billion worth of international trade.

The headlines generated by a relatively small oil spill in Vancouver last spring highlighted the need for the kind of factual information Clear Seas aims to gather. The bulk carrier MV Marathassa accidentally discharged about 2,700 litres of toxic bunker fuel into English Bay. A Canadian Coast Guard review of the incident identified 25 areas of improvement including more timely information, better response protocols and more coordinated communication. Wiefelspuett noted the shipping industry “welcomed the opportunity to participate in meaningful engagement on ways to improve oil spill response and are prepared to continue to build these relationships. “The Marathassa review confirms that that even with comprehensive rules and stringent regulatory oversight, accidents still occur. Canadians are well aware of this and continue to voice considerable concern over the potential risks of increased marine shipping in our waters.

“As recommended in the Marathassa review, meaningful engagement with all partners in the shipping industry is critical to learning from this particular incident and finding ways to prevent or respond to others like it in the future.” That’s just the kind of work the Centre will be performing.