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Shoreline Cleaning Assessment Technique (SCAT) training for Guardians

It sounds like the start of a joke: “How do you clean oil off a polar bear?” Answer: “Very, very carefully.”

It’s no joking matter, however. That’s exactly what Shoreline Cleaning Assessment Technique (SCAT) instructor Bruce McKenzie had to be prepared for, in case of an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. Marine oil spills – from pipelines, tankers, or even smaller vessels – can be devastating, not just to wildlife but to the environment generally, and people who live and work on the coast anywhere in the world.

“The impacts range from ecological to socio-economic to cultural and health impacts,” says McKenzie, an experienced oil spill response consultant and trainer who was recently in Campbell River to give some of the Ha-ma-yas Guardians a three-day SCAT training workshop. “Important food gathering sites can be affected, archaeological sites can be damaged, tourism and other coastal economic activity can be completely compromised. The toxicity of the materials can be a serious health and safety risk for responders. And you only have to see a bird completely covered in oil to feel the depth of the impact. It’s a terrible thing to witness.”

SCAT was developed in response to the massive 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill near Valdez, Alaska, says McKenzie, when responders needed a systematic way to document the spill’s impacts on many kilometres of affected shoreline. The SCAT approach uses standardized terminology to document shoreline and sediment types and oiling conditions, and is designed to support decision-making for shoreline cleanup.

Surveys are undertaken by SCAT teams to verify shoreline oiling, cleanup effectiveness, and eventually, to conduct final evaluations of shorelines to ensure they meet cleanup goals. There are eight basic steps in the process, all of which were covered in the Guardians’ training: conducting reconnaissance survey(s), segmenting the shoreline into separate sections for assessment, assigning teams and conducting SCAT surveys, developing cleanup guidelines and endpoints (goals), submitting survey reports and shoreline oiling sketches, monitoring effectiveness of the cleanup, conducting post-cleanup inspections, and conducting a final evaluation of the cleanup activities.

SCAT teams include people trained in the techniques, procedures, and terminology of shoreline assessment. Teams typically include people with knowledge and experience in oil and oil cleanup techniques, geomorphology, ecology, and in some cases, archaeology. In the Nanwakolas member First Nations’ territories, of course, the local knowledge and experience that Ha-ma-yas Guardians bring to the work, in addition to those skills, will be invaluable to any response effort.

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“SCAT training is really important for all the Guardians in our territories,” says Tlowitsis Guardian Tashina Matilpi-James, who took the training workshop. “We are the ones who are always out there and the first to see something happening.” When a fuel tanker truck fell from a barge in 2023 in Chancellor Channel, Tlowitsis Guardians were closest to the scene to report on what was happening, and Guardians from Wei Wai Kum, We Wai Kai and K’ómoks First Nations, in whose territories the oil spill occurred, were key to the success of the response. “You never know when you might be in that situation,” observes Tashina. “You really want to have those skills when it does happen.”

Using a collaborative, consensus-building approach, SCAT teams collect the data needed to develop a shoreline cleanup plan that maximizes the recovery of oiled habitats and resources, while minimizing the risk of injury from cleanup efforts. The team’s responsibilities include evaluating oil type and condition, factoring in shoreline types and coastal processes to oil behavior and cleanup methods, identifying environmentally and culturally sensitive resources, determining need for cleanup, recommending cleanup methods and endpoints, and placing constraints on cleanup, if necessary, due to ecological, economic, or cultural concerns.

Sometimes it may even be better to do nothing: it is possible that cleanup activities might cause greater harm than the oil alone, especially in sensitive areas like marshes or archaeological sites like clam gardens. “It’s so important to protect our cultural sites,” says Wei Wai Kum Guardian Samuel Henderson, who also took the course. “We really need to know all of these different aspects to responding to an oil spill. It’s complex, with many different things to think about to do the best job possible.”

“An oil spill would affect everything we hold dear,” agrees David Puglas, of Mamalilikulla First Nation. “Our food, our people, our wildlife, everything. This course is great, teaching us everything we need to do to be part of a SCAT response.”

in the Northern Shelf Bioregion – which encompasses the Nanwakolas member First Nations’ territories – the Nations as co-governance partners will be integral to the management of any response in their territories. Having Guardians integrated into SCAT teams will give the Nations “eyes-on” knowledge of spill conditions, ensure that the Nations’ interests are being protected, and bring a critical archaeological and cultural lens to shoreline treatment recommendations.

With all the marine traffic passing through the Nanwakolas member First Nations’ territories, says Tlowitsis Guardian Calvin (“Coco”) Charlton, and all the mishaps that can happen, SCAT training is not just desirable, but a necessity. “We’re most likely to be at the forefront of a response,” he points out. “We need to know exactly what to do when – not if – it happens.”

Learn more about SCAT training and spill response at https://www.spillconsult.com/.