A map created by Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping, which assesses the sensitivity of Canada’s Pacific Coast to oil spills. This map highlights the Douglas Channel and other inlets and waterways around Kitimat and out to the coast. (Clear Seas map)

A map created by Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping, which assesses the sensitivity of Canada’s Pacific Coast to oil spills. This map highlights the Douglas Channel and other inlets and waterways around Kitimat and out to the coast. (Clear Seas map)

Douglas Channel scores ‘medium’ to high’ on oil spill sensitivity study

The study was done by a not-for-profit group specializing in sustainable marine shipping

  • Oct. 17, 2020 12:00 a.m.

The Douglas Channel and waters around Kitimat are among the most sensitive to a marine oil spill along the Canadian Pacific Coast, a not-for-profit research centre study found.

The Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping is a not-for-profit research centre that works to support safe and sustainable marine shipping in Canada. Recently, a study of theirs found that the Douglas Channel, along with the inlets and water ways around it, are high-up on their level of sensitivity to possible oil spills.

“This project on the sensitivities of coastal areas to oil spills is one part of a larger marine transportation corridor, a project that we’ve been working on since 2016, actually,” Paul Blomerus, Executive Director of Clear Seas, said.

The findings from the study helped Clear Seas create a map of the Canadian Pacific Coast, focusing on the coast, waterways, and inlets and scoring them as “Very low” to “Very high” in terms of sensitivity to oil spills.

“The intention here is to provide a tool that’s, kind of, easier to access and easier to process so you can combine this information with any other kinds of geospatial information, like marine traffic movements,” Blomerus said. “Where are the ships going or where are you planning for those ships to go, so you can get a feeling for other areas where they’ll be going.”

Blomerus said the research that went into creating the map tool combined the biological, physical, and socioeconomic factors, to highlight the different people, animal, and natural sensitivities that come into play in any specific area.

So, for the Douglas Channel and its inlets and waterways, for example, Blomerus said that, while it has the biological factors of the abundance of nature and wildlife, it is also a popular waterway for industrial ships and even tourist activities.

“So it’s, kind of, interplay between that socioeconomic [factor] and the very high biological sensitivity,” Blomerus said, “especially along the shoreline on the Channel.”

Clear Seas said that, in the scoring, the edges of channels and inlets in and around the Douglas Channel have a high and very high biological sensitivity, while the centre channels have a low to very low score. The shoreline near Kitimat scored as highly sensitive. Socioeconomic sensitivity scored medium to high along the entire Douglas Channel, with water use and port facilities from the industries being the major contributor.

While many tools and groups focus on oil spill response, Blomerus said the purpose of Clear Seas’ research and the map tool is to work on the larger scale and inform people about the risk factors present in and around each area.

“Risk is function of probability of something happening and the impact that it might have,” Blomerus said. “Our approach is to provide the tools and information for others to act upon. So, we hope that this would make for a richer dialogue about what should be done. And particularly, we think it will enable citizens and local communities to be able to engage in that dialogue.”

And this isn’t the first time an oil-spill-related organization has labelled the Douglas Channel and waterways around Kitimat as a high-risk area.

READ MORE: Coastal Response Program maps out sensitive areas along B.C. coast

The Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) is an organization that monitors areas along the coast that are at a higher risk factor of having an oil spill, then develops appropriate response plans and strategies depending on the water and coast features of each particular location.

They, too, came out with a mapping tool that allows local people to tell WCMRC where known sensitivities are, so WCMRC can put equipment at the locations and mark the sensitivities on an interactive map. That way, oil spill responders know what is needed at any given location in advance and have the proper equipment already there if a situation arises.

The difference with WCMRC’s tool from Clear Seas’ is the intended purpose. WCMRC’s mapping tool is meant to show the locations of oil spill response equipment and plans, so responders know where the necessary equipment is located if a spill occurs.

Clear Seas’ mapping tool is meant to be used on a larger scale, for ships and shipping routes to be planned ahead to mitigate risk, and to alert locals of the risk and sensitivity levels in their area so they can begin local discussions about oil spill dangers and how to prevent them, etc.

As WCMRC is an oil spill response organization, they focus more on preparing for response, while Clear Seas’ focus is more on risk information, to work in tandem with other local residents and response organizations.

“The idea is if you map out the coast ahead of time and you know where these sensitivities are — so that could be environmental or cultural or, you know, even economic sensitivities —if you map where they are, you can develop protection strategies for the locations,” Michael Lowry, Communications Manager at WCMRC, said in an interview with the Kitimat Northern Sentinel earlier this year.

Lowry also said that higher-trafficked areas are at a higher risk for oil spills, in terms of probability.

“It’s really based on the shipping volume and the shipping traffic,” Lowry added. “We look at the risk factors, in terms of the probability side of things, and that’s usually where the traffic is.”

With risk information easily accessible through the WCMRC’s mapping tool, it means proactive strategies can be put in place to help minimize risk, as well as having plans and equipment in place if responders do end up having to react quickly.

“The more data that we have, the better that program’s going to be,” Lowry said. “So if people have information they want to share with us, in terms of what they feel is sensitive, we can adjust that program on the fly.”

Like the WCMRC, Clear Seas said they want to make their mapping tool publicly accessible, as well as easily changeable if local public input says something different than what a current score says for an area.

“We’re open to people disagreeing with us, too,” Blomerus said. “I think we’ve acquired quite a bit of knowledge, but if somebody with local knowledge of a particular area goes in there and looks at it and say, ‘I disagree with this score,’ we’d love to hear from them.

The first iteration of the tool is based on entirely public sources, Blomerus added, but they are hoping to have further discussions with local coastal Indigenous groups, to try to include more traditional knowledge in the dialogue.

“We’re interested to hear people’s feedback and, as I said, we don’t mind if they disagree or they agree, we’d love to hear from them.”

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