Statement on Coast Guard: Lunney

Monday, June 18, 2012

Statement on Coast Guard: Lunney

OTTAWA, On: Last week I expressed concerns about planned changes to services provided by Canadian Coast Guard (CGC) in coastal BC.  The proposal includes downsizing/amalgamation of five Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) centres to two and a closure of a major search and rescue centre in Kitsilano.

Technology has changed, service models must be updated; true in industry, true in providing government services.  However, since 1995 when CGC was transferred from Transport Canada to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, centres and personnel have experienced downsizing, cross-training, amalgamation and attrition.

Currently, MCTS Tofino monitors all traffic approaching the coast and exiting the Strait of Juan de Fuca both, American and Canadian.  This is one of the busiest marine traffic lanes in North America. Container ships, tankers, military ships, tugs, barges, sail boats, yachts, cruise ships, commercial and recreational fishers can be found up and down the coast.  The Strait of Juan de Fuca funnels traffic to the major ports of Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle and other coastal communities.

The MCTS proposal would leave just two centres monitoring 27 000 kms of BC coast from Sidney on Vancouver Island and Prince Rupert in the North Coast.  By contrast, Atlantic Canada, even after reorganization will retain five MCTS centres covering 11 400 kms of coast line. Something all coastal BC residents understand but Ottawa seems prone to overlook is our off-shore geological fault line; minor quakes happen regularly, geologists tell us a major one is a certainty.  In 2004, Seattle monitoring shut down after a quake, our centres took over monitoring all traffic.  It could just as easily be Sidney shut down.

Monitoring at Prince Rupert needs to be expanded as the plan calls for.  North Coast traffic is increasing as part of the Asia Pacific Gateway.  I have visited the Prince Rupert MCTS, many of the eyes and ears (antennae) are on remote mountain sites accessed only by helicopter.  Heavy rain, fog, low cloud-cover make such sites inaccessible for weeks at a time.  In my view, Prince Rupert is too remote and too vulnerable to its own challenges, to serve as the sole back up for Sidney even with upgrades.

Furthermore, weather reports from MCTS Tofino and Comox, are part of the lighthouse weather circuit that report seven times a day to Environment Canada, including visual reports from their own stations.  Microclimates and local weather variations are part of life on the coast.  Local mariners and aviators rely on these eyes on the water on a daily basis.

Ucluelet, the home of MCTS Tofino, is now the largest port for landed seafood in BC.  Transferring MCTS personnel to Sidney or Prince Rupert would be a major disruption in the lives of such employees; pulling 25 jobs from a community of 1600 will have a huge economic impact.

There is an old adage: “a threefold cord is not easily broken”. MCTS Tofino should remain part of a future ‘state of the art’ coast guard service.

Finally, concerning the proposed closure of Kitsilano Coast Guard Search and Rescue, experience with Hovercraft on coastal BC would tell us they are extremely well suited to the mud flats and shallow water off Sea Island serving the airport vicinity.  Whether the new hovercraft will have a better service record than its predecessors remains to be seen. However, experience to date would indicate such craft are high maintenance; meaning for much of the year, only one of two craft is likely to be available. It’s not reasonable to expect hovercraft to be able to cover the highly utilized English Bay area in addition to its Richmond/airport mandate.  Kitsilano is heavily utilized in the summer, high traffic season. Winter months may be less active, but any call out has much greater intrinsic risk.

We have the best trained MCTS personnel in the world; our SAR techs are second to none. They’ve done it all to provide safe and effective service.  In recent weeks, I have met with responsible authorities in Ottawa and written suggesting more workable solutions.  I trust the public uproar has helped underscore my concerns and I remain hopeful that a more promising solution can be embraced for coastal BC.

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