By Keith Norbury

The dream of a $2 billion transshipment hub near Port Alberni on the west coast of Vancouver Island remain alive despite being unsuccessful in a recent call for expressions of interest from the federal government’s National Trade Corridor Fund.

Zoran Knezevic, CEO of Port Alberni Port Authority, said in January that the port plans to try again during the government’s next call for proposals which began Jan. 15. “This time we will probably be looking for detailed funding for a detailed feasibility study,” Mr. Knezevic said.

In the more immediate future, Port Alberni has a few more modest initiatives in the works. They include efforts to increase the frequency of cruise ship visits, expanding the port’s capabilities as a fish-processing hub, resuming lumber exports once a new sawmill is completed, and maintaining its place as significant port for log exports.

Cruise ships coming

This year, a cruise ship from Holland America Line will make one-day stops at Port Alberni on May 25, June 15, and July 6. They will be the first cruise ship visits to Port Alberni since 2013. “We are hoping to get more and more every year in the future,” Mr. Knezevic said. A cruise committee that includes representatives from the city of Port Alberni and the local chamber of commerce has been formed to help with those efforts. The port has also hired Aquila Tours of Saint John, N.B., to assist with making Port Alberni “more cruise attractive and cruise friendly,” Mr. Knezevic said. “From what we have learned, the cruise industry is looking for new destinations.”

According to the Holland America website, Maasdam will stop at Port Alberni this summer during 21-day cruises between San Francisco and Alaska. Port Alberni tours include a ride on a steam train and visits to a winery, a microbrewery, a water buffalo farm, a steam-operated mill, Stamps Falls, Cathedral Grove, and Coombs. “The big reason why Holland America has returned to Port Alberni is they’ve launched a new tour market segment focusing on unique authentic experiences for their passengers, who are a little bit younger than the traditional cruise passenger,” said Dave McCormick, the Port Authority’s Director of Public Relations and business development.

780-foot-long Maasdam, which accommodates 1,258 guests, will drop anchor at the port and transport passengers by tender to Centennial Pier, where they will disperse for the various tours. If it all pans out, Port Alberni Terminals is contemplating dedicating berth 3, which has room for expansion, for future cruise ship visits, Mr. Knezevic said.

Fishy future

In recent years, Port Alberni has become the home port to a pair of factory fishing vessels that process and freeze their catches at sea. Raw Spirit, owned by Victoria-based Independent Seafood Corporation of Canada, has been calling at the port for about the last six years. A second vessel, Viking Enterprise, owned by Arctic Pearl Fishing Ltd. of Richmond, B.C. is a more recent addition. Raw Spirit unloads the equivalent of about a dozen 40-foot containers of hake, turbot and other fish three times a month. The catch is then sorted and loaded into containers hooked up to reefer plugs at the port. “When those reefer containers are ready, they are trucked to the lower mainland and put on ships that pass in front of Alberni a week or so later on the way to Asia,” Mr. Knezevic said.

Port Alberni also has a fish processing facility that is currently being used only for ice production. However, the port is offering the owners of that Port Fish ice plant up to $500,000 as an incentive to upgrade the facility so it can resume fish processing. The aim is to capitalize on Port Alberni’s heritage as a blue-collar community and recreate its image as a fishing village. “There is a lot of seafood that is being caught in the (Alberni) inlet, inside and outside, that passes through our community. We would like to capture that and process it here for the export market and also for the visitors as well,” Mr. Knezevic said.

Log exports steady for now

For now, Port Alberni’s major export is logs. In 2018, it shipped out 620,000 cubic metres of logs, slightly less than the previous year, Mr. Knezevic said. That works out to 433,566 tonnes, which is a fraction of the 6.6 million tonnes of logs Port Vancouver handled in 2017. Log exports have long been controversial in B.C., and the New Democratic provincial government recently vowed to introduce policy reforms to reduce raw log exports and encourage more lumber production.

Port Alberni also used to export lumber, about one ship a month. But Western Forest Products, its main customer for that, is now exporting from Nanaimo, Mr. Knezevic said.

However, San Group of Langley, B.C., is building a new sawmill at Port Alberni that Mr. Knezevic expects will begin operation later this year. “That one is going to produce a large amount of lumber and most of it, from what I’m heard, destined for Asia,” Mr. Knezevic said. “I believe with that additional sawmill and what we have produced here before we’ll be able to attract that lumber ship back to port.”

Berths need work

Looking ahead, two of the three berths at Port Alberni Terminals — berths 1 and 2 — were built in the 1950s and 1960s and in need of upgrades. “We are doing some repairs and retrofits right now,” Mr. Knezevic said, adding that the Port Authority will apply to the National Transportation Corridor Fund to assist with the revitalization. “If you don’t repair it and replace it, it will no longer be usable in a decade or so,” he said. Berths 1 and 2 have a combined length of 320 metres and a depth of 11.4 metres at zero tide.

Berth 3, which is 320 metres long with a depth of 12.2 metres, was built within the last 40 or 50 years. “It has concrete piles,” Mr. Knezevic said. “It has strong solid concrete deck. So it’s really in good working order and shape.” In contrast, berths 1 and 2 are built with wooden decks on wooden piles. “And that needs some love, he said.

PATH commitment reaffirmed

A long-term dream for Port Alberni, though, remains the PATH project. In late January, the Port Authority reaffirmed its commitment to the project in a four-page open letter signed by Knezevic and Ron Crema, who chairs the Port Authority. The letter makes the same arguments detailed in a 420-page feasibility study released in 2014: PATH project will sidestep the problem of traffic congestion on B.C.’s lower mainland that hampers the smooth movements of containerized cargo. The negative impacts “have worsened dramatically” since that report, “in part due to the continuing increase of container ship traffic,” the open letter states.

“Rail lines are running at capacity. Lower mainland streets are clogged. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising. In addition to these negative impacts, industry is facing an accelerating shortage of truck drivers. Land for industrial and commercial growth is virtually unavailable while all classes of real estate prices, including residential, have soared,” the letter continues.

Darryll Anderson, a transportation analyst, said transshipment plays an important role in the movement of Canadian goods on key junctures of the north-south and east-west trades in areas of high shipping traffic of large vessels such as the Caribbean. But he isn’t convinced that there is enough traffic in the Pacific northwest at present to make a transshipment hub viable at Port Alberni. “If you’re just trying to say other people’s points of congestion are going to provide a transshipment opportunity for me, that’s a challenge,” Mr. Anderson said, adding that “what we’ve seen is the transshipment traffic tends to be less certain because the shipping lines can reconfigure their schedules.”

The National Trade Corridor Fund has yet to be convinced of PATH’s worthiness. The fund had short-listed an expression of interest from the project, the Port Authority announced in October 2017. But now that the project has failed to clear that hurdle, Mr. Knezevic said the Port will just have make “a stronger business case.”

Case made already

It’s not as though the Port Authority hasn’t already made a case — in the $450,000 420-page report that Transport Canada helped pay for in 2014. That report consisted of pre-feasibility studies conducted by heavyweight consulting and engineering companies such as SNC Lavalin, Hatch Mott MacDonald, and Canadian Pacific Consulting Services.

The study envisioned the PATH terminals handling 3.5 million containers a year to and from ships capable of carrying 22,000 standard containers at time. The containers would then be placed on barges and moved to terminals on B.C.’s lower mainland, as well as to Seattle and Tacoma in Washington state. Mr. Knezevic said the regulatory landscape has changed since that report was prepared, changes that the new PATH proposal will take into account. For example, since January 2015, ships sailing in designated Emission Control Areas, such as along the Pacific Coast of the U.S. and Canada, can only burn bunker fuel with a sulphur content of less than 0.1 per cent. Being able to dock at Port Alberni instead of Vancouver would significantly reduce the amount of high-priced ultra-low-sulphur fuel those ships would have to burn, Mr. Knezevic said.

Another argument the Port advances is that reducing the number of large vessel sailings in the Salish Sea would lighten the impacts on the region’s endangered killer whales. “I would say container ships are noisier than most ships because of their speed,” Mr. Knezevic said. “By reducing the number of large container ships in the Salish Sea, and utilizing shallow-hulled barges that create less noise pollution, absolutely, we will help the southern killer whale population.”

The more detailed study will also look at scaling down the project — from the $1.7 billion to $2.2 billion originally envisioned — “to make it more palatable,” he said.

The main arguments in favour of  PATH will remain the same, though. “We have to build a relief valve for the lower mainland,” Mr. Knezevic said.

Congestion argument

Mr. Anderson did concede that congestion in Vancouver and Seattle might eventually reach the point where transshipment is necessary. However, because transshipment traffic is more mobile than gateway traffic, a terminal operator looking to invest in a transshipment terminal is going to wonder who will be the baseline customers, Mr. Anderson said. “There may be some benefits to transship some cargo through the lower mainland and possibly into Seattle or Tacoma. But it doesn’t answer the question from a terminal operator’s perspective of where are we going to get that baseline,” Mr. Anderson said.

He also said that Port Alberni also lacks the large local market of big industrial centres like Vancouver and Seattle. Mr. Knezevic, however, noted that Vancouver Island has a population of about 800,000 that will soon reach one million. He says that would provide a substantial local market for PATH.