The Ha-ma-yas Guardians have been practising responses to marine disaster scenarios for three years now in partnership with the Canadian Coast Guard and Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC). When a fuel tanker carrying 17,000 litres of diesel fuel rolled off a barge on the evening of April 20th and sank in 35 metres of water in Chancellor Channel, just off Hardwicke Island, the Guardians moved swiftly into action to respond. This time, it was real.
“I’m immensely proud of all of our Guardians,” says K’ómoks First Nation Chief Ken Price. “Not only K’ómoks but Guardians of the Wei Wai Kum, We Wai Kai and Tlowitsis Nations all worked together rapidly and effectively to assist in a situation that needed fast, experienced action to try and minimize environmental damage to our territories.”
In “Partnership and Protection,” (March 2022) Nanwakolas member First Nations described how they have been developing Geographic Response Strategies (GRS) to protect areas of their territories that have cultural, food gathering, conservation and economic significance from the impacts of marine spills and pollution, especially incidents involving oil or chemicals. With the backing of Nanwakolas Council, who worked with the First Nations to support the development of their respective GRS, Guardians of the First Nations have been undertaking training to implement those GRS, in collaboration with partners like WCMRC and the Canadian Coast Guard (in September 2022, for example, Mamalilikulla Guardians spent a day out on the water with the Coast Guard practising booming techniques in readiness for the inevitable day that a chemical spill would occur in their waters).
On April 20th, 2023, that day arrived when a fuel tanker carrying 17,000 litres of diesel fuel rolled off a barge on the evening of April 20th and sank in 35 metres of water in Chancellor Channel, a sensitive environmental area within the territories of the Wei Wai Kum, We Wai Kai and K’ómoks First Nations. “We were ready,” says Wei Wai Kum representative Tony Roberts Jr. “Along with the other Nations we immediately stepped into the Unified Command centre that was established, along with the Coast Guard, Marine Link Transportation, who were operating the barge, and the provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.”
An intense operation
The barge had been enroute from Menzies Bay to supply fuel to the logging operator on Hardwicke Island when it fell from the barge in high winds, sinking in about 35 metres of water. Marine Link Transportation, which was operating the barge, reported the incident to the Coast Guard immediately and contracted Western Canada Marine Response Corp. to respond (WCMRC is the Transport Canada-certified marine spill response organization for Canada’s West Coast, and has also worked with the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network on response strategies).
On the morning of April 21st, responders from the Coast Guard, WCMRC, and First Nations Guardians arrived at Chancellor Channel and deployed an underwater, remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to locate the truck. At the same time, a Unified Incident Management Team (Incident Command) was set up to manage a coordinated response and to guide that response through joint decision-making. Nanwakolas Marine Planner Barb Dinning supported the process, taking a coordination role in the Nations’ involvement both on-water and in Incident Command for this first real-life implementation of the Nations’ response strategies.
The local knowledge of the First Nations and the GRS that had been developed for sensitive sites in the area was vital, and relied on heavily by the other parties, observes Chief Price. “Unified Command met multiple times a day to discuss the priorities for retrieving the truck as soon as safe and practical, with the least possible release of diesel fuel into the marine environment, and to implement strategies for the protection of environmentally and culturally sensitive areas. All three First Nations had deployed our Guardians immediately to work with on-water responders on site, to help with the operations and to ensure the First Nations leadership were fully informed about the status of the operations so we could make our decisions about the appropriate next steps to take.”
Divers continually surveyed the truck to patch areas that were leaking while preparations were made to bring in equipment to lift the truck from the seabed. The leaks appeared to be intermittent, but the amount leaked was unknown, even by the time the truck was successfully brought to the surface at 4pm on Friday, April 28th. All the remaining fuel was immediately transferred out of the truck, reducing the pollution threat, but it was subsequently established that potentially as much as 15% of the fuel leaked into the environment – up to 2,500 litres.
Guardians of the Wei Wai Kum, We Wai Kai and K’ómoks First Nations, with assistance from the Tlowitsis Guardians, were all on site to assist with expertise, local knowledge of the area and equipment during the lift. Both Marine Link and the Coast Guard members of Unified Command acknowledged the vital role that the First Nations had played: “They told us openly they could not have done this without us,” says We Wai Kai Guardian Manager Shane Pollard. “It was good to hear that appreciation for our work, and acknowledgement of how important our participation in response and recovery activities are.”
Now that the initial pollution response and recovery is complete, Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Techniques (SCAT) activities are the next immediate step for Incident Command to consider, particularly in light of the amount of fuel that may have leaked into the water. On May 3rd, Guardians went back out to the casualty site to check all the shorelines in proximity to the sunken truck that were identified as environmentally or culturally sensitive to pollution (cultural sites, salmon bearing streams, and eelgrass beds, for example) for pollution. These sites were identified in collaboration with First Nations and Environment Climate Change Canada, the province, and the Canadian Wildlife Service. These partners in the response will also be reviewing the process – the first “real life” implementation of the response partnership between the Coast Guard, the province, and the First Nations – to look at what worked well, and what could be improved.
“These types of accidents aren’t uncommon,” observes Wei Wai Kum elected Chief Councillor Christopher Roberts. “We see a lot of marine-related pollution incidents and marine emergencies in Wei Wai Kum territory. Marine activity is only going to increase, I think. That’s why we need continued and sustained investment from partners like the Coast Guard, and investment in our First Nations Guardians to do their work, so that we can all get better and better at being able to protect our important marine and cultural areas together. What happened here is a clear demonstration of that.”
“I think everyone learned from this experience, and that is a good thing,” agrees Chief Price. “This has clearly demonstrated how important the participation of the Guardians in implementing our response strategies is, and how much more effective the response can be when the First Nations are part of joint decision-making in Unified Command, right from the start.”
Nanwakolas Council President Dallas Smith applauds the work of the First Nations and their Guardians in the process. “We have been saying for a long time that the Guardians are the ones with the most intimate knowledge of our territories, who understand local tides, currents, and marine conditions so well because they are out there year-round, and they really have the highest stakes in protecting the environment and important cultural sites in our territories. So everyone benefits when the Guardians are there on the front line, and able not only to support the practical operations with their knowledge and experience but support their leadership with real time information about what is going on to help with their decision-making and collaboration on the response.”
The Guardians, in other words, are proven goal-scorers in a situation like this: having them on board, literally, can make the difference between a successful outcome and a complete ecological marine disaster. In part, that’s why Nanwakolas are actively working to support increasing Guardian numbers and capacity. “It’s important,” emphasized Dallas in July 2022, “to understand that the jurisdiction of the Nanwakolas member First Nations encompasses marine and territorial governance, resource management, and protection in our territories, which collectively cover about eight million acres on northern Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland south-central coast of the Great Bear Rainforest. You can understand why we need a dedicated workforce in place to monitor, protect and manage these ecosystems. Ideally, there would be at least one hundred Guardians right now, if not more.”
“In the meantime,” concludes Chief Price, “this has given us the opportunity to see how we can work together with the Coast Guard even better in practice in the future and confidence that we all have the capability now to partner on an effective response in a more serious situation if we need to. That’s a good outcome.”