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Ha-ma-yas Lands News Waters

Dealing with derelict boats in Nanwakolas member Nations’ territories is a high priority for them. It is a goal that is immensely challenged by bureaucracy, but the Nations are working hard to partner on solutions.

You might think, if you had an abandoned boat on your front doorstep seeping oil, chemicals, battery acid and crumbling plastics into the environment, that it would be easy to get it dealt with – especially if it happened to be in a sensitive ecological area, or a culturally important site. Surprisingly, it’s not.

The removal and disposal of derelict and abandoned boats is anything but a simple process in British Columbia waters. It involves multiple government agencies, lots of paperwork, and long wait times – one of the reasons why, in 2021, literally thousands of such vessels still litter the coastlines of Vancouver Island and the wider territories of the Nanwakolas member Nations. That statistic is why the Nations, with the support of the Nanwakolas Marine Team, are prioritizing ways to help address this serious issue.

What exactly is the problem?

“Vessels of concern,” as they are known in the marine sector, include abandoned or sunken boats and ships that are ocean navigation or pollution hazards . It’s not surprising that First Nations with stewardship authority and responsibility for the waters in their territories have significant concerns about these kinds of vessels, which pose real threats to the health of the marine environment and culturally important food sources.

That’s why, when the Nanwakolas member First Nations agreed to participate in implementing Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan and marine planning programs through a Reconciliation Framework Agreement (RFA) with the Government of Canada, they emphasized, among other things, the need to be involved in gathering data for a national inventory of derelict and abandoned boats, and the development of a risk-based assessment process to establish priorities for removal in their territories. It was also vital, from the member Nations’ point of view, that they be involved from the beginning in planning, monitoring, and the process of removal and clean-up activities in their territories.

That kind of collaborative decision-making process requires good communication and coordination, of course. The trouble is that the process to deal with derelict boats is mired in rules and regulations, all administered by different government departments, and none of it is easy to comprehend. A recent report by the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations puts it very simply: “Often, there is no simple answer to the question: who should be dealing with this problem?”

Most of the seabed in the province is classified as being in provincial government jurisdiction. However, the provincial government has minimal influence in vessels of concern, because under the Canada Shipping Act the federal government is responsible for shipping and navigation, including dealing with wrecks where no owner can be identified (a common problem). If the owner can be found, the boat is not considered a “wreck” under the Act – the owner is expected to deal with it. If the wreck is an obstruction to navigation, the Navigation Protection Act kicks in to determine how it can be removed. Either way, Transport Canada gets involved to deal with the matter, through yet another piece of legislation: the Wrecked, Abandoned or Hazardous Vessels Act.

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It gets even more complex

If the vessel is spilling oil or other chemicals into the marine environment, the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) gets involved, as does the provincial Ministry of Environment, which regulates discharges that cause pollution. The CCG coordinates and conducts hazard assessments on wrecks and derelict boats, and enforces yet another important regulation, the Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks, 2007, which makes owners responsible for the costs of removing wrecks. Last but not least, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) gets involved in small craft harbours, and even Parks Canada may have a role to play if the wreck or abandoned boat has historical or cultural significance.

No wonder it’s tricky to (pardon the pun) navigate through the bureaucracy. Apart from anything else, the rules require that significant effort be put into finding the owner of an abandoned boat before removing it, which means extensive research, filling out multiple forms and applications, and waiting for extended periods to ensure that if an owner is to be found, they get a chance to recover or remove the offending vessel. On top of all that, arrangements have to be made to dispose of the boat and its contents appropriately. While some material may be recycled, inevitably most of it ends up in landfills, which has to be arranged in advance, especially if hazardous materials are involved. Naturally, all of this costs a great deal of money.

 The Reconciliation Framework Agreement: an opportunity in the wings

When the RFA was signed in 2018, with the promise of funding to come, the first step was to make sure that Transport Canada in particular was aware of the key concerns of the member First Nations. Those concerns included a frustrating lack of communication. For example, when Guardians would report a derelict vessel in the territory, they typically received no acknowledgement or follow-up. Although an inventory was created, it wasn’t publicly available. Working together on the inventory was therefore a high priority.

A second key goal was for Transport Canada to proactively involve the member Nations in the planning process for removal of boats to ensure that the process did not have any further impact on culturally or ecologically sensitive areas, rather than simply notify them when a removal was already about to begin. The member First Nations also wanted to agree on a risk assessment process that would enable them to hit the removal switch for high risk situations.

“It makes complete sense to have the First Nations, especially the Guardians, involved from the beginning in inventorying and assessing derelict vessels,” says Nanwakolas Marine Planning Coordinator John Bones. “There is a great opportunity here for Transport Canada to access real time, detailed information from Guardians who are out on the water all the time, and to work with the Nations on viable, efficient plans to remove these vessels safely.”

It’s an opportunity that is still waiting to be seized, however, in part due to an overwhelming interest across the country in clean-up of derelict vessels, creating delays and affecting funding availability. Jake Smith, Mamalilikulla First Nation’s Guardian Manager, is a strong and vocal advocate not only for better communication between the federal government and the First Nations, but for prompt action. “We have been very discouraged to date by the lack of good communication,” he admits frankly. “It’s important that this changes, because we all want these boats cleaned up. If we are able to understand the process better, and work with government instead of not knowing what is happening, the outcome will be better for everyone. Better communication and collaboration is essential for that to happen. We really need to clean up these places, and the longer we wait with no action, the impact on our waters and shores just keeps increasing.”

The goal under the RFA is to have such a working partnership in place with the government agencies involved, but it is slow progress. “I think people genuinely want to see this happen, but there is a lot more talk than action,” says Jake. “Things are slowly changing, but not fast enough. We really need to be removing these boats as soon as possible.”

A partnership model

An opportunity to make more rapid progress presented itself when John Roe, president of the “Dead Boats Society” in Victoria, contacted Jake after seeing an article about his clean-up efforts in the newspaper, and offered help to get some of the high priority derelict vessels in Mamalilikulla waters removed. It was an offer the Nation eagerly accepted. John founded the boat removal organization in 2017, but has been involved since 1994 in the issue. That year he and his family moved to Victoria, and he discovered that the Gorge waterway in that city was literally clogged with garbage, including abandoned boats.

In the twenty-five years since, he has used his vast knowledge of the laws, his expertise and his advocacy skills to fundraise, interpret the ever-changing rules, work with First Nations and get his hands dirty in physically removing literally hundreds of boats from BC’s southern coastline. Despite those efforts, there are still, he says, as many as 4,500 boats that he knows of littering our shores. Thanks to John’s offer to undertake the paperwork process and apply for funding for removal, Jake is expecting to see most, if not all of the derelict boats in Mamalilikulla waters removed by spring 2023.

At a broader level, John is eager to see First Nations have much more control over the process in the future, which is one reason he offered to help: “It is just sensible,” he says. “I’ve got twenty-five years of experience, but the Guardians bring 10,000 years of knowledge of these waters to the table, and they know intimately what the impacts are to the health of these areas. They are out there as the eyes and ears of the Nations so can document everything that is happening as they work.”

He is also keen to help out by putting modern scientific tools and methodology at the disposal of the Nations, to assist them in data collection, and is currently developing surface-driven scanning technology to map intertidal areas that will  be immensely useful in that regard. “It’s a real simple prescription,” he says. “Put all that modern science and technology to work for First Nations, combined with their huge knowledge, and enable them to do what they need and want to do to clean up everything.”

A “made in BC” programme run by First Nations

Prevention remains front and centre on the agenda in discussions with the federal government under the RFA, as does support for clean-up efforts and work on the inventory. “What we are trying to do now,” says John Bones, “is develop agreements with Transport Canada and CCG on collaborative decision-making, not only for  derelict boats but also for other marine transportation and incident management issues in the territories. This will include not just agreed response processes in the event of a spill or sinking, but appropriate ways to prevent them happening in the first place.” (Watch this space for more news on the regional response strategy work in coming weeks and months).

In the meantime, when it comes to vessels of concern, John Roe believes a tailor-made clean-up, monitoring and prevention regime run by the First Nations is the ideal scenario. That’s music to Jake’s ears: “I would love to see that happen.” Jake thinks public awareness and support is the key that will unlock that door: “We need the public to be aware of the problem, and supporting this approach, so that they understand that the Guardians are the active protectors of the marine environment.”

“We are in the best possible position to do this,” says Jake. “It’s in everyone’s interests to see these boats removed, environmentally, culturally, and recreationally – these are such scenic places as well as important food harvesting sites, fish spawning watersheds and ecological areas. That can only be good for everyone on the coast who loves clean, healthy water.”