The Vancouver Port Authority said it will work towards dealing with issues related to the anchoring of freighters in the southern Gulf Islands, but acknowledged it has limited jurisdiction in the area.
A delegation from VPA talked to the board at the Cowichan Valley Regional District at its meeting on July 13 as part of the VPA’s public engagement process as it develops a new vessel-traffic management system to manage traffic flow at the port and in southern British Columbia waters.
The delegation faced criticism from a number of directors over long-standing concerns about the controversial anchoring of large vessels close to shore for extended periods as they wait to dock at the VPA.
Capt. Shri Madiwal, the VPA’s director of marine operations, said the port authority is primarily responsible for managing anchorages at the port, but has been assigning anchorages in the southern Gulf Islands since 2018 in accordance with the federal government’s interim protocol for the use of anchorages in the region.
But he pointed out that Transport Canada is responsible for all decisions regarding designated anchorages outside of the VPA’s jurisdiction, including those in the southern Gulf Islands.
“We’re continuing to work with Transport Canada to develop the new vessel-traffic management system, including keeping the agency informed of what we are hearing from communities in our public engagement process,” Madiwal said.
“We began our engagement with Indigenous groups, local governments and community stakeholders in January to help us better understand community interests and concerns with the view to develop a broader pubic engagement program. Our goal here today is to explore a range of opportunities to increase efficiencies and help better manage the effects of marine shipping on local communities.”
But Madiwal reiterated that the VPA doesn’t have the authority or responsibility to establish or change anchorages outside its jurisdiction.
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There are 33 commercial vessel anchorages located throughout the southern Gulf Islands, including six in operation in Cowichan Bay and six near Ladysmith and Saltair harbours.
Repeated calls have been made by local governments, community groups and First Nations about protecting clam beds, prawns, oysters and endangered species, such as the southern resident killer whales, from the environmental impact of the anchored shipping vessels.
As well as concerns about the impacts to the marine environment of parking these large ships in the area, there are also concerns about the noise and light pollution they create.
Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone said he’s skeptical of the process.
He said he grew up in the area and the volume of ships anchoring offshore and the poor behaviour of the vessels has substantially increased over the years.
“I get that Vancouver’s port is growing, but I’m not sure that expanding the social and environmental impacts throughout this sensitive ecosystem is a positive step forward for the VPA, and it’s definitely not a positive step forward for the residents, flora and fauna of the southern Gulf Islands,” Stone said.
“I’m very supportive of the VPA overall, but I’m skeptical of this engagement. It seems more like work to justify the interim protocol and continuing with it than actually listening to the communities and protecting the environment in the long term.”
Madiwal said he can’t comment on how the VPA conducted public engagement with communities in the past, but he’s committed to engaging with local communities on the issues pertaining to the anchorages.
He said once the jurisdictional issues with Transport Canada are worked out as the development of the new vessel-traffic management system continues, he expects a number of concerns could be addressed without regulatory of legislative changes.
“Those things need to be sorted out, and we’ll continue to work with Transport Canada to do that,” Madiwal said.
Debra Toporowski, a director from North Cowichan, stressed that people in the Cowichan region who live close to the water are continuously inundated with noise and light pollution from the vessels that are having impacts on their lives, and said the dragging of anchors from the ships has drastically impacted traditional seafood sources in the area.
Madiwal said these issues are well known to Transport Canada and to the VPA.
He said as part of the new management system, it’s planned that there will be a renewed and enforceable code of conduct for vessels.
“A lot of the things that were in previous codes for conduct will be ramped up and we’ll be using some of the tools in the code for increased compliance, monitoring and enforcement,” Madiwal said.
“That is the piece I think is missing from the southern Gulf Islands. But while these anchorages are used by vessels calling on the VPA, they don’t come under our jurisdiction so we can’t actually enforce anything because its outside our mandate. We’re working on that aspect as well because we want to reduce these impacts.”