Navigating through a sea of problems

Islands Trust is looking out to sea.

For its first four decades the Trust has been preoccupied with land use, but in recent months it has turned increasing attention to marine matters, a move strongly promoted by the Gulf Islands Alliance.

Troubles with the shellfish industry dominated discussion at Trust Council’s town-hall session in Victoria in early December. Other sea-change challenges are the prospect of tanker traffic oil spills in Georgia Strait, possible polluted run-off into Baynes Sound from the proposed Raven Coal Mine, ongoing struggles to save seashore ecology against near shore and shoreline developments, and, in the longer term, preparing for rising sea levels and other climate-change threats.

Shelley McKeachie of the Association of Denman Island Marine Stewards got Council’s full attention when she said the environmental damage and lack of government control over the shellfish industry, so far confined to the Baynes Sound, could spread to all the southern GulfIslands with the introduction of geoduck (gooey duck) aquaculture.

Council followed by instructing the Trust’s executive committee to “study and make recommendations to Council regarding the costs and resources necessary to create an advocacy campaign for the marine and coastal protection of the Salish Sea, and that all related advocacy issues such as aquaculture, oil tanker traffic, coal transport and climate change be included in this examination.”

Council is checking to see if it can afford the finances and staff resources to take part in the National Energy Board hearings into the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline to Vancouver. If approved, there will be large increase in tanker traffic oil spill risk. Council wants the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to have Port Metro Vancouver study how increased marine traffic from Roberts Bank Terminal 2 would impact the ecosystems, species, and communities of the Salish Sea. 

The struggle to protect Trust Area waters and ecology has intensified in recent years as the federal government has promoted energy industry expansion. When Scott Vaughan, Canada’s commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, retired early in 2013 he said “environmental protection is failing to keep pace with economic development.” He lamented the absence of sea life protections. As we’ve seen in the Trust Area, setting up the promised national network of marine protected areas, free of heavy economic activity, has been painfully slow in Canada.

Vaughan‘s complaint about “jurisdictional confusion” applies both to monitoring and control of energy companies and fisheries. He noted that government-imposed liability limits for oil spills are outdated and ridiculously low. The cost of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill was $40 billion.

To attract taxpayers’ attention to the fact they would be on the hook to pay billions to clean up a marine oil spill, the Gulf Islands Alliance’s suggested that Islands Trust should ask senior governments for a ‘cost assessment of oil spills that includes an economic evaluation of the loss of natural services’. We were turned down.

The Trust opposes ‘oil pipeline projects that lead to the expansion of oil export by barge and tanker from Canada’s west coast’, and supports a ‘long-overdue initiative to improve the BC spill prevention and response regime.’ The Trust noted that UBC fisheries economists figured a major tanker spill off BC’s northern coast $10 billion.

Of even greater concern than oil spills is what the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, an international group of marine scientists, describes expected unprecedented damage to ocean ecosystems by climate change, overfishing, and industrial pollution. In their 2013 report they said increased warming, acidification and de-oxygenation reduces the capacity of oceans to nurture resident plants and animals. Program spokesperson Professor Alex Rogers says, “The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”

Climate change has ignited predictions of more lethal weather events, causing damage far beyond the capacity of affected local governments to repair.  Parts of the Lower Mainland and the islands are increasingly vulnerable to violent weather and rising sea levels. A rise of 1 metre could occur in 20 years, says Coastal Cities At Risk, a group looking at ways to protect communities at high risk from climate change. A major concern is seawater seepage into ground water or the outright flooding of food production areas. Many crops won’t tolerate extra salt. Another huge challenge is to find ways to protect infrastructure and deal with private property rights and zoning to discourage development in low-lying areas.