• The articulated tugboat Nathan E. Stewart aground off B.C.'s north coast in October 2016

    The articulated tugboat Nathan E. Stewart grounded with fuel barge off Athlone Island on B.C.'s north coast in October 2016. Although the barge itself was empty, when the tug ran aground, it spilled more than 110,000 litres of fuel into into Heiltsuk territorial waters, devastating the local clam fishery. (Photo: Jordan Wilson/Pacific Wild)

Shortly before 4 p.m. on November 26, 2017, a U.S. barge carrying 3.5 million litres of diesel to Alaska broke free from its tugboat, the Jake Shearer, off the rocky shore of British Columbia’s Goose Island. Westerly winds were blowing at 45 knots while rain all but sandblasted the side of the barge, now anchored precariously in rough waters. The Canadian Coast Guard vessel deployed from Prince Rupert, approximately 300 kilometres away, wasn’t expected to reach the stranded barge until 7:30 p.m. at the earliest.

Although there was no initial official notification from the Canadian Coast Guard or Transport Canada about the stranding, word travelled quickly through the Indigenous Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella, 45 kilometres up coast. Goose Island. The location bred panic; the area is known for its dangerous topography. Inside her home, Heiltsuk councillor Jess Housty switched on the VHF radio perched on a bookshelf in her living room, anxiety welling up in her body. Not again.

At 5:34 p.m. local time, she tweeted:

The unfolding events bore a disturbing similarity to the Nathan E. Stewart disaster that occurred just over a year earlier. When that tug ran aground in the early morning hours of October 13, 2016, more than 110,000 litres of diesel fuel, lubricants and heavy oils spilled into Heiltsuk territorial waters, closing the clam fishery and devastating the livelihoods of many community members. It had taken hours for the Coast Guard to reach the tug, at which point it was too late. At 9:35 a.m., the boat sank.  

Now, Housty and her community faced another agonizing wait.

The harsh weather conditions at sea the night of the Jake Shearer incident mirrored those that prevented responders from getting the Nathan E. Stewart under control in time.

Says Housty, “There was a huge fear that they wouldn’t be able to intervene in this situation either.”

Around 10:30 p.m, the Canadian Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel Gordon Reid arrived from Prince Rupert. For the rest of the night, Housty would monitor the VHF, juggling taking care of her six-week-old baby with tweeting out updates to her community and concerned citizens around the province. By the next evening, a replacement tug had arrived and pulled the barge to protected waters, narrowly avoiding another tragedy.

“It was more exhausting and emotional than I had expected,” says Housty of the ordeal. “One of the things that was really challenging to manage was that, in and of itself [the Jake Shearer] was such a huge and terrifying threat, but it also triggered so many memories for people of the Nathan E. Stewart. The anxiety in the community was even more heightened.”

But what should have been a sigh of relief for the community instead stoked outrage as the Heiltsuk pointed, once again,to the urgent need for a marine disaster response centre located nearby — not several hours away in Prince Rupert or Victoria.

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As marine traffic increases along the West Coast, so too will accidents. Less than two weeks before the Jake Shearer incident, the Heiltsuk Tribal Council released a 62-page report — the culmination of a year’s worth of fast-paced work following the Nathan E. Stewart spill — outlining their proposal for an Indigenous Marine Response Centre (IMRC) that would work with the Coast Guard to provide faster assistance to vessels in distress.

With a base on Denny Island, across from Bella Bella, and other satellite locations along the Central Coast, the IMRC would employ 37 full-time staff and have an Oil Spill Response Barge ready to go at a moment’s notice. Crew would be drawn from a pool of locals who are familiar with the area, waterways and weather and trained as first responders.

They expect to be busy: the Tribal Council analyzed data from the Transportation Safety Board and found that between 2011 and 2016, there were more than 600 incidents in Canadian waters from the north end of Vancouver Island to the Alaska border. These included fires, collisions, groundings, persons overboard, capsizings, and loss of dangerous goods. The Heiltsuk also looked at 20 years’ worth of groundings and near-groundings in their territorial waters and found 157 incidents over a 20-year period. At these rates, and given current traffic levels within the proposed response area, the report anticipates the IMRC would respond to approximately three incidents per month.  

Response times in other jurisdictions around the world range from three to 11 hours, averaging 7.5 hours. With the IMRC, the Heiltsuk say, first responders would be able to reach 100 per cent of incidents within five hours or less.

“From Ahousaht with the Leviathan II to Gitga’at with the Queen of the North to Heiltsuk with the Nathan E. Stewart, Indigenous communities have shown that we are and will continue to be the first responders to marine incidents in our waters,” the proposal reads. “The time has come to meaningfully develop our capacity to properly address emergencies in our territories as they arise.”

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Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett vividly recalls the events surrounding the Nathan E. Stewart spill. Her brother is part of the Heiltsuk Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network and was out on the water that day.

“I kept getting text messages from him … ” she says, tears filling her eyes as she recalls the helplessness she felt at her brother’s descriptions of the scene.  “The equipment. The booms. The chaos. It was a lot of boats, a lot of people, and there was not a clear sense of command in terms of how the response should be carried out. The size of the impact was a shock to our system.”

The Gale Creek area, where the bulk of the spill occurred, is the “breadbasket” of the Heiltsuk. “The people were just gearing up for the clam fishery,” Slett says.

Had the proposed IMRC been in place on October 13, 2016, fast response vessels and crews would have arrived at the site within 30 minutes.

“We don’t want to invite more tanker traffic with this proposal, but we know we’re still very vulnerable,” says Slett.

We have a long road ahead as a community to feel the sense of security that we felt before.

For decades, Coastal First Nations have been reclaiming their power and authority in their traditional territories. In 2015, the Heiltsuk signed off on a self-declaration of their title and rights, and a strategy for upholding them. These were intended to be an assertion of sovereignty, separate from any recognition the Heiltsuk would seek externally through court cases or agreements with the provincial and federal governments.

The Nation has spent years working to improve economic opportunities in their territory, and strengthen environmental protections in the Great Bear Rainforest. Today, more than 100 Indigenous men and women are employed in the Coastal First Nations Coastal Stewardship Network, which monitors the waters and lands of the central and northern coasts and Haida Gwaii. The IMRC would be yet another way for the Heiltsuk to assert their jurisdiction in their territory and aid others nearby.

But such a facility comes with start-up costs of $111.5 million and an annual operating budget of $6.8 million. The Heiltsuk are hoping to source significant funding from the federal government.

In November 2016, the Government of Canada announced the $1.5-billion National Oceans Protection Plan (OPP), which includes provisions to develop measures that will bolster marine safety and prevent and improve response to marine pollution incidents.

While communities are still waiting for full details to emerge, the OPP will also form new “Indigenous Community Response Teams” in British Columbia that will provide training for search and rescue, incident command, and environmental response, as well as provide funding for marine safety equipment and infrastructure for northern coastal communities.

Housty is hopeful all that will equate to a substantial federal investment in the IMRC.  “We’ve made a pretty strong case, and it does align nicely with priorities in the OPP,” she says.

In the meantime, November’s close call has highlighted for Housty how much more emotional healing still needs to happen in the wake of Nathan E. Stewart.

“Speaking for myself, just the simple act of standing by my VHF, listening to the radio chatter of Jake Shearer, hauled up such traumatic memories for me,” she says. “Floods of emotion and uncertainty came crashing back a year later. And I know I’m not the only one. We have a long road ahead as a community to feel the sense of security that we felt before.”

Part of that security can only come from a guarantee of improved response, says Slett.

“We’ve heard from the provincial and federal government about their world-class response and our experience is it just does not exist,” she says. “We need to change that. We’re doing so much for the protection of our ecological treasures; [the IMRC] provides for the protection that just isn’t there today.”