Death by a thousand ships

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Haida fishery guardian G_aayhldaa 'la'aaygaa (Robert Brown) was picking seaweed on the shores of Haida Gwaii to feed friends and family when he noticed something wasn’t right.

“Thick, brown, sludgy stuff” had washed up near the water's edge, he said.

The source of the contamination was never proven, but a large ship had dropped anchor just off the shore of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, where it sat for weeks on end, Brown said. As a Haida guardian, Brown is on the front lines of the Haida Nation’s conservation work, and he says that’s just one example of the harmful impacts the Haida are seeing from ships increasingly crossing through their waters.

“We don't just have small speed boats anymore, we have the big tankers that come close to shore,” he said.

Ships cruising into Haida waters have long posed a dangerous threat to traditional ways of life that are heavily dependent on a healthy ocean environment for food.

The opening salvo happened roughly 250 years ago in 1774, when Spanish mariner Juan Pérez sailed to Haida Gwaii — believed to be the first European contact with the Haida Nation. Within 20 years, the British pounced on Haida Gwaii for sea otter pelts, kicking off an extractive industry that pushed the species to near-extinction, severing balanced relationships with the natural world that Haidas have stewarded from time immemorial.

Over the years, ships heaped additional harm on Haida Gwaii. Smallpox and missionaries both arrived by boat, reducing the population from an estimated 20,000 to around 600. For a culture that passes knowledge from one generation to the next orally, the death of more than 95 per cent of the population in just over 100 years is a devastation beyond words.

The Haida Nation’s population has rebounded to about 2,500 on Haida Gwaii (and another 2,000 living away), but threats from ships endure. Commercial overfishing has led to harvesting bans imposed on Haida citizens, cruise and cargo ships create immense pollution and bring invasive species, and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) boom in British Columbia means hundreds more ships will cross this region annually, leading to mounting pressure on the ocean ecosystem that’s sustained Haida society and culture for thousands of years.

It’s death by a thousand ships.

Chapter 1

The Simushir’s close call

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On Oct. 16, 2014, a close call taught the Haida a crucial lesson about the danger posed by passing ships.

A major storm was off the west coast of Haida Gwaii and an officer working at the Marine Traffic and Services Coordination Centre in Prince Rupert noticed a ship that appeared to have lost power and was drifting at sea. The Russian cargo ship Simushir was loaded with toxins, including mining supplies, 472 tonnes of bunker fuel and 59 tonnes of diesel. Its crew couldn’t fix the mechanical issues, and the ship’s captain was injured. The wind howled as the ship drifted in heavy seas on a collision course with Haida Gwaii’s shore.

At 1:30 a.m., the Coast Guard was sent to rescue the boat, but in this remote part of the world, the rescue ship wasn’t expected to arrive until 3 p.m. Haida Gwaii was a sitting duck.

Shortly after 3 p.m., the Coast Guard arrived and began towing the vessel away from shore. Two towlines snapped in the effort, but eventually, a combination of multiple Coast Guard vessels towed the cargo ship to a port in Prince Rupert.

Haida Nation footage of the Simushir via CHN Youtube

If it weren’t for sheer luck, that day could’ve gone completely differently, said Haida marine biologist Gwiisihlgaa (Dan McNeill).

“If it wasn't for a wind swing, and a calming of the wind, we would've been hit. There's no question,” he said.

“It was almost a good thing because the worst-case scenario didn't happen, we dodged the bullet,” he said, reflecting on the day. “But it opened other people's eyes up.”

Lessons were learned that day about what went wrong, and how close Haida Gwaii came to the ship hitting shore, where a major fuel spill would have, by all accounts, been inevitable. The year after the near miss, the Council of the Haida Nation (CHN) convened a workshop for residents to debrief what happened. A 52-page report was published soon after, summarizing the incident, and includes a dozen recommendations to improve the emergency response should a similar situation occur.

Haida citizens and Canadian officials discuss the Simushir incident at the workshop organized by CHN. Photo via CHN/Facebook

But perhaps the most important lesson for the Haida Nation was that it could not afford to wait for other governments to deal with the problem of vessel traffic in Haida Gwaii waters.

After an incident like this, the goal is to “try to minimize that risk to the greatest degree you can,” said CHN President Gaagwiis (Jason Alsop).

In 2020, CHN and the Government of Canada launched a “voluntary protection zone (VPZ)” that asks large vessels to stay further from shore than they otherwise would in order to avoid a Simushir repeat. The VPZ began as a 14-month trial, but because about 90 per cent of ships respect the request, it remains in effect indefinitely.

Gaagwiis describes it as a step forward that helps the nation’s ability to exercise sovereignty over its traditional territory.

Exercising your jurisdiction “doesn't mean you do everything on your own, though,” he said. “Part of being a nation and being a government is… [interfacing] with other governments and other nations, and work on what are the terms of how we're going to do things.

“We've certainly, over the years, shown an ability to find innovative ways to still work with other governments, and work with industry, and work with our neighbours and the other people that call Haida Gwaii home,” he said. The goal is always to look after Haida Gwaii for future generations.

Voluntary Protection Zone around Haida Gwaii. Map via Transport Canada

But even as the Haida Nation increasingly asserts itself over the ocean, “there’s more and more goods being shipped through our territory,” he said. The increased pollution, the increased risks of spills or grounding and the invasive species that hitch rides on these ships all represent major risks to a culture and people interwoven with the health of the sea.

“That traffic is projected to continue to increase, so how we can manage it and be prepared and mitigate?” Gaagwiis asks.

Chapter 2

A looming threat

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At 130 metres, the Simushir was roughly as long as the Pyramid of Giza is high. But the Russian cargo ship is dwarfed by the average LNG tanker that will soon cross the region’s waters.

A typical LNG tanker is about 300 metres long. To put that in perspective, outside of the CN Tower, the INCO Superstack and Toronto’s First Canadian Place, no other structure in the country stands higher.

As British Columbia and Canada encourage LNG export terminals to be built along the coast, it is estimated hundreds of these vessels will cross these waters annually. Together, federal and provincial governments have offered hundreds of millions of dollars worth of subsidies to the LNG sector to encourage investment.

Some subsidies are obvious, like the $275 million Canada announced it would give to LNG Canada in 2019, while others are subtler, like B.C. discounting electricity rates to help it save the company tens of millions of dollars annually.

At the LNG Canada export terminal in Kitimat, each LNG carrier is expected to be able to transport 52 to 68 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of liquefied gas. Accidents with LNG ships are rare, but they do happen for a variety of reasons, including mechanical failure and human error, sometimes with jaw-dropping close calls, like when a U.S. nuclear submarine collided with a Norwegian gas tanker in 2002.

LNG Canada says it's taking safety into account and will have certified pilots who know the B.C. coastal route on board, a dedicated tug to escort the LNG carrier along the coastal route, and will travel at slower speeds, among other safety measures. But this doesn’t assuage the Haida Nation’s fears, Gaagwiis said.

LNG Canada export terminal site. Photo via LNG Canada

The cumulative impacts of increased shipping traffic, new invasive species, the risks of ships coming ashore, the pressure it puts on Haida Gwaii and the climate change implications of further fossil fuel development are all concerns, he said.

Gaagwiis said he respects other nations’ right to steward their territories, referencing the Haisla Nation’s decision to allow LNG Canada to build an export terminal in its traditional territory in Kitimat, as well as the Haisla Nation’s majority ownership of the Cedar LNG project. But “a decision made in one place has impacts in another place,” he said.

An environmental assessment that only looks at the impact to the immediate area where the LNG export terminal is built, rather than one that considers the impact of ships, too, “is flawed” and fails to respect the Haida Nation’s rights and title over its territory, he said.

At the forefront of the Haisla Nation’s LNG advocacy is Chief Coun. Crystal Smith. She chairs the First Nations LNG Alliance, which advocates for LNG development in British Columbia and has received funding from both the provincial and federal governments.

Smith was not made available for an interview, but she’s publicly explained her support for the LNG industry in the past. For Smith, the Cedar LNG and LNG Canada export terminals being built in Kitimat are an economic opportunity that can help her nation heal from the generational effects of residential schools.

“We’ve set our direction in the Haisla perspective that we want to build a healthy, prosperous, powerful nation, and that means independent members. That means healing from our trauma,” she said.

“I’ve lived that trauma firsthand. About five years ago, my common law committed suicide. I lost the love of my life, and my daughters lost their father,” she said. “And I’m not saying it’s the money that would have saved him, but if we had programming that could provide education and awareness of mental health and addictions, we might have had him longer with us.

“So that’s my inspiration.”

Chapter 3

Noise, collisions and waste

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CHN Vice-President Ginn wadluu un uula isdaa ayaagang (Trevor Russ) says LNG is a sensitive topic for all the nations. Beyond the climate change implications, the increased vessel traffic has him concerned about the impact on ocean life.

When seaweed harvesting roughly two years ago, Russ spotted a vessel anchored about nine kilometres offshore. What he saw didn’t bother him as much as what he heard. “You can hear the generators going,” he said.

Whales, dolphins, porpoises and other marine life are highly dependent on sound for communication, navigation, reproduction and well-being. Noise pollution causes significant harm, he noted. More vessels mean more disruption to the ocean ecosystem, and thereby is also a looming threat to Haida ways of life.

Russ was raised by a family who took him out on the ocean to fish, and now any chance he gets, he likes taking his nephews out fishing, too.

“The privilege of being born and raised here” comes with a “responsibility to do your part and pass on the knowledge,” he said.

Russ reaches into a cooler to pick out a freshly caught fish. Photo by Brandi Morin/Canada's National Observer

McNeill, the CHN’s marine biologist, opposes LNG development because “it’s us who live with the consequences, whether it’s a tanker going up on our shores, or simply whales getting struck.”

In recent months, “three or four” humpback whales appear to have been struck. “I know two of them were definite vessel strikes,” McNeill says.

“There's trauma on their body –– this wasn't an entanglement –– there's blunt-force trauma wounds on it,” he said.

Beyond the immediate harm of ramming whales and noise pollution, increased vessel traffic also promises new contaminants and invasive species carried by ballast water.

Ballast water is carried by ships to add weight to the vessel for stability and is pumped out when adding cargo. This process effectively transports water from one place to another, dumping non-native plants, animals, bacteria and more in new environments.

The Haida Nation is already seeing the impacts of invasive species, Gaagwiis said.

Ballast water dumped European green crabs in California, which have since migrated north along the Pacific coast and are affecting Haida Gwaii, he said. That “impacts eelgrass beds, impacts the ecosystem, impacts the native species as (green crab) outcompete them.”

The impacts are cumulative, and each additional ship that crosses this region increases the pressure on Haida Gwaii, Gaagwiis says, adding Crown governments have not properly respected this.

“It’s a constant part of our reality and our responsibility to do our best to look after this place by whatever the best strategy is,” he said. “There are other nations who are looking to (LNG) to develop their economic base.

“We have a different perspective on it, and we disagree on that as the path forward.”

Reporting for this article was made possible by the support of the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.