By Alex Binkley

Investments and training to reduce maritime transport accidents have paid off during the last decade, but more information is needed to improve safety, says a report prepared by the Council of Canadian Academies.

The report, commissioned by the Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping, and a public opinion poll by Angus Reid also commissioned by the Centre, show the industry was on the right course with its safety efforts to gain public recognition of its safety.

“Commercial marine shipping has benefited from improved traffic control technology, better ship designs, and a strengthened regulatory regime,” said James Parsons, Academic Director at the Marine Institute of Memorial University and Chairman of the committee that prepared the report. “Accidents do still occur, yet typically do not result in large impacts.”

The report said the likelihood and severity of a shipping accident differ greatly across Canada. While the St. Lawrence River has the highest level of commercial marine accidents, they’re the least likely to lead to casualties or serious injuries. The Pacific Region has the highest level of shipping activity, but a relatively low risk profile.

“Clear Seas commissioned this report to build consensus on the scope and character of commercial marine shipping risks,” said its Executive Director Richard Wiefelspuett. “The report highlights a surprising lack of available data and research to fully understand the types, nature and causes of marine shipping risks, so we’ll use this report as a benchmark for future research to help fill the gap. A lack of data limits the understanding of marine shipping risks in Canada.”

Wiefelspuett added that “More research is needed to contribute to a fuller understanding of the factors that contribute to the regional variations in accident rates and severity. Characterizing and measuring the likelihood of commercial marine shipping accidents is dependent on accurate and complete data”. Currently data does not include causal information nor do they allow for risks to be characterized by stages of shipping.” He expects more insight into the industry’s performance and importance will come with the completion of the Council’s expert panel assessment on the social and economic value of commercial marine shipping in Canada. It was commissioned by the Clear Seas Centre and is due for release in 2017.

One vexatious area in maritime safety is information on oil spills, he added. The Canadian Coast Guard, spill response organizations and the insurance industry, “collect different data and there is no consistency or harmonization across data sets.” He urged the federal government to have Statistics Canada resume the collection of marine shipping stats, which it discontinued in 2011, he said. “As well, a single data repository of causes, types and impacts of incidents and accidents would allow for better risk characterization.”

Michael Broad, President of the Shipping Federation of Canada, said the Council’s report “lays the groundwork for future risk assessments.” He welcomed its emphasis on the safety culture that’s been injected into the business. Overall, the accident and incident rate has trended downward.” The risk posed by shipping in the Arctic because of a lack of detailed navigation charts also needed to be pointed out.”

Being able to demonstrate improved maritime safety is important to keeping public trust of the industry’s commitment to safety, Wiefelspuett said. “Of the many important findings in this report, we are very pleased with Council’s development of a framework that acknowledges the importance of social licence to operate. ”The ease “with which social licence can be gained will depend not just on the risk level, but also the broader risk perception of a given community.”

It is certainly a challenge to address misperceptions without accurate and up-to-date information, so we, as an industry, have to push hard to get that resolved, which I think is doable. But with the information we do have available, I think we can do a better job of communicating the story of the importance and benefits of commercial marine shipping to Canadians, while at the same time increasing our social license by openly and regularly engaging with coastal communities, indigenous groups and the public about the risks, whether real or perceived, and risk mitigation measures.”

The Angus Reid poll said Canadians feel overall confident that marine shipping is safe, but they have reservations about transporting oil in the Bay of Fundy and around B.C.’s south coast. “Canadians see Canada as a seafaring nation and have mostly positive views about shipping and its contribution to the country.” Coastal Canadians have stronger views about the industry’s safety than those who live far from the ocean or the Great Lakes, the pollster said. Then there is concern “that not enough attention is paid to them.”

“Canadians believe marine shipping makes an important – even critical –contribution to the economy, facilitates international trade and benefits coastal communities. Three-quarters (73 per cent) of Canadians rate the marine shipping industry and its activities as “generally safe” and another one-in-five (21 per cent) say it is “very safe” About 40 per cent expressed concern about movement of petroleum by water.

Among the conclusions in the Council’s report is acknowledgment that while Canada has a well-developed oil spill response regime, recent evidence has identified areas for needed improvement. Providing a timely response, particularly in remote areas, is one example. There is also a need for a hazardous or noxious substances preparedness and response regime across Canada, as well as further research into how these substances behave in a marine environment.

The report also said that because there are few maritime accidents in Canada, “much of the evidence on the environmental, economic, social, and health impacts comes from elsewhere. This evidence underscores the fact that large oil spills, because of the severity of their impact, present a significant risk to Canada. Environmental impacts, both immediate and longer term, can lead to a number of subsequent social, economic, and health impacts that increase the overall degree of risk associated with oil spills.”