Hakai Magazine

Ocean feighters at anchor on Southern Gulf Islands, British Columbia
With heavy traffic backing up outside British Columbia’s Port of Vancouver, large ocean freighters are waiting their turn at smaller anchorages throughout the southern Gulf Islands. Photo by Chris Cheadle/Alamy Stock Photo

Freighters in Paradise

Larger ships, lengthy loading processes, and increasing traffic are contributing to traffic jams at major ports, and the effects are spilling onto the surrounding areas.

Authored by

by Larry Pynn

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Satellite Channel shimmers in the autumn sun, while grebes and cormorants break the cellophane-like surface and gentle waves lap the shoreline of Cowichan Bay off Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Mid-channel, disrupting the sightline to Saltspring Island, three red-and-black freighters up to 300 meters long await their turn to dock in Vancouver, just across the Strait of Georgia.

“They’re anchoring in residential areas but should be in an industrial port,” asserts Neil MacDonald, vice president of the Cowichan Bay Ship Watch Society.

Bulk freighters, mainly grain carriers, are a long-accepted fixture on the Vancouver skyline and a symbol of the city’s enduring history as a working port. But the sudden presence of those same ships anchored in the picturesque passes between British Columbia’s southern Gulf Islands—as little as a one-hour ferry ride from the mainland—is raising the ire of local residents.

The community, says MacDonald, is concerned about the noise from generators and other sources, and the ships’ powerful lights. He says he’s been woken up at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. by a ship dropping anchor outside his waterfront home. “And if you don’t have drapes on your bedroom window, forget about trying to sleep.”

Residents are also worried about the effects of repeated anchoring on the seafloor and the potential for freighters to run aground and spill fuel, including onto the shores of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve—a site described by the federal government as a “lush paradise” deserving the country’s highest level of protection.

These fears are not unfounded. In 2009, the 242-meter bulk carrier Hebei Lion dragged its anchor in a windstorm and ran aground on Conconi Reef in Plumper Sound, between Mayne and Pender Islands. Luckily, the vessel floated free at high tide and with the help of a tug was returned to its anchorage with no apparent damage.

An increasing global population and ever-growing demand for shipped goods are creating similar conflicts between citizens and industry elsewhere. People in Quebec City, Quebec; Moncton, New Brunswick; St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador; and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia have expressed concerns over interference with traditional activities such as fishing. In the United States, residents’ concerns over anchorages have arisen in Seattle and Samish Island in Washington State and in the Florida community of Cape Charles. On the Hudson River in New York, planned new anchorages for oil barges are the lightning rod.

In British Columbia, a number of factors are cited for sizable cargo ships spilling out of the major ports of Vancouver and Nanaimo and finding their way to more remote island anchorages where they pay no port fees.

For example, in an effort to improve loading and unloading, a 2016 Port of Vancouver policy restricts vessels to seven days’ anchorage in the inner harbor. Inefficiencies in providing cargo also play a role. Port spokeswoman Danielle Jang explains that several different types and grades of grain are shipped and that a bulk carrier may be required to visit a terminal multiple times or visit multiple terminals to complete its load. All those movements can require more time anchored.

Over the past year, the amount of cargo being shipped through the Port of Vancouver has increased five percent to a record 142.1 million tonnes and continues to increase at a similar pace. About nine ships per day visit the port, and forecasts predict that will rise to about 12 ships per day by 2026.

Vija Poruks, a project manager with Transport Canada in charge of navigating the anchorage issue on the west coast, explains that while anchorages within the southern Gulf Islands have been designated as overflow sites for Vancouver and Nanaimo since at least the 1970s, they’ve historically been used only rarely. Not anymore. MacDonald’s group has counted 49 freighters in Cowichan Bay from January through August 2018, up from just nine during the same period in 2016. Sometimes the ships stay anchored for a month or longer, MacDonald says.

“Quite a few things have changed,” Poruks confirms. Residents are also more aware of and concerned about environmental issues than they were when the overflow anchorages were established in the 1970s, she adds.

To address the situation, Transport Canada has launched a national anchorages initiative to develop oversight procedures for anchorages outside of the port authority’s boundaries while considering the full range of socioeconomic and environmental factors. The initiative is funded through the CAN $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan. “It’s time to have a really close look at the way anchorages outside of ports are managed, selected, and monitored,” Poruks says. That means looking at anchorages not strictly in terms of industry’s needs, she says, but taking into consideration community concerns.

While the initiative is being developed through 2019, the Port of Vancouver is responsible for balancing the allocation of ships among the 33 anchorages located outside port boundaries on the British Columbia south coast to ensure that no community is overwhelmed.

Industry leaders are also eager to find a solution to the traffic jam. Robert Lewis-Manning, president of the Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia, supports improving efficiency through better supply of cargo to the port and faster loading, and wonders whether a trend toward larger ships might exacerbate problems. The port notes that the average tonnage for an outgoing bulk carrier increased from 54.7 million tonnes in 2008 to 78.9 million in 2017.

Depending on the type of cargo and perceived risk, he adds, ships arriving for cargo may have to anchor first and be cleared by four federal agencies—the Canadian Coast Guard, the Canada Border Services Agency, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Transport Canada—before being allowed to dock. “I’d like something like a single window where all that administration and red tape can be handled relatively effortlessly in one swoop,” he says. In so doing, the results could be a win for residents and industry alike, he says.

And the sheen of paradise could once again prevail in places like Satellite Channel.