On Monday, October 20, 2014, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea, stood in the House of Commons during Question Period and proved she is not up for the job.
Answering questions from Opposition MPs about the incident of the Russian container ship, Simushir, which drifted dangerously close to the coast of Haida Gwaii, Shea got up and read a prepared script, a script with answers which ignored centuries of the laws and custom of the sea, as well as Canada’s own laws and treaty obligations, answers probably written by what are now known as “the kids in short pants” in the Prime Minister’s Office.
There was a time in this country when some ministers of the Crown took their responsibilities seriously. That idea that has decayed over the years and now has been gutted by the adminstration of Stephen Harper. As Ottawa pundits have noted recently, only a small handful of cabinet ministers in the Harper government have any real responsibility and only those are permitted to answer questions by themselves in the Commons. According to most Ottawa insiders, the less important ministers, like Shea, are basically told what to do by the prime minister’s office.
If the House of Commons under Harper could fall any lower, Shea’s attitude (or more likely the PMO’s attitude) on ship and coastal safety takes the Commons and ministerial responsibility to a new low—the bottom of the sea.
Nathan Cullen, NDP MP for Skeena Bulkley Valley, who represents Haida Gwaii first asked. “Mr. Speaker, on Friday, a Russian ship carrying more than 500 million litres of bunker fuel lost all power just off the coast of Haida Gwaii.The Canadian Coast Guard vessel, the Gordon Reid, was hundreds of kilometres away, and it took almost 20 hours for it to reach the drifting ship. Thankfully, favourable winds helped keep the ship from running aground, and a private American tugboat eventually towed it to shore. Is the minister comfortable with a marine safety plan that is based on a U.S. tugboat and blind luck in order to keep B.C.’s coast safe?”
“Mr. Speaker, luck had nothing to do with the situation. The Russian ship lost power outside Canadian waters in very rough weather. The private sector provides towing service to the marine industry. We are grateful that the Canadian Coast Guard was able to keep the situation under control in very difficult conditions until the tug arrived from Prince Rupert.”
Cullen tried again:
“Mr. Speaker, if the government really wanted to show its gratitude to the Canadian Coast Guard maybe it would not have cut $20 million and 300 personnel from its budget. Even after the Gordon Reid arrived, its tow cable snapped three times. The Russian ship was only about a third as big as the huge supertankers that northern gateway would bring to the very same waters off the west coast. How can Conservatives, especially B.C. Conservatives, back their government’s plan to put hundreds of oil supertankers off the B.C. coast when we do not even have the capacity to protect ourselves right now?”
Shea replied: “Mr. Speaker, this Russian ship lost power outside of Canadian waters. The Canadian Coast Guard responded and kept the situation under control, under very difficult conditions, until the tug arrived from Prince Rupert.
We as a government have committed $6.8 billion through the renewal of the Coast Guard fleet, which demonstrates our support for the safety and security of our marine industries and for our environment.”
Related Link: Canadian Coast Guard Mid-Shore Patrol Vessel program
Next to try was Liberal MP Lawrence MacAulay from Cardigan.
“Mr. Speaker, the Russian container ship that drifted off the west coast raises serious concerns about the response capability of the Canadian Coast Guard. This serious situation was only under control when a U.S. tugboat arrived.”
Again Shea read her script: “This Russian ship lost power outside Canadian waters. On the west coast, the private sector provides towing services to the marine industry.’
The final attempt by Liberal Joyce Murray, from Vancouver Quadra, also led to a scripted answer. “ this was a private towing vessel that came to tow the vessel that was in trouble.”
Shea’s answers, especially her repeated reference to “territorial waters” set off a series of “What the…?” posts on Twitter from west coast mariners and sailors, wondering if Shea knew anything about maritime law.
The first question one must ask was Shea actually not telling the whole truth to the House of Commons (which is forbidden by House rules) when she said the Simushir was outside Canadian waters? The Haida Nation, in a news release, (pdf) says the Simushir was “drifting about 12 Nautical Miles North West of Gowgaia Bay located off Moresby Island off Haida Gwaii.”
International law defines territorial waters as a belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles (22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state.
As Shea’s own DFO website says Canada has exercised jurisdiction over the territorial sea on its east and west coasts out to 12 nautical miles since 1970, first under the Territorial Sea and Fishing Zones Act and now under the Oceans Act. The baselines for measuring the territorial sea were originally set in 1967. While the exact position can and should be confirmed by the ship’s navigation logs and GPS track, it is clear that the container vessel could have been at one point after it lost power within Canada’s territorial waters.
Even if the Simushir wasn’t exactly within territorial waters, the ship was in what again Shea’s own DFO website calls the “contiguous zone “an area of the sea adjacent to and beyond the territorial sea. Its outer limit measures 24 nautical miles from the normal baseline zone.” In any case, the Simushir was well within what Canada says is its “exclusive economic zone” which extends 200 nautical miles from the coastal baseline.
Law of the Sea
So here is the first question about Shea’s competence.
How could she not know that the Simushir was well within Canadian jurisdiction, as defined by her own department’s website? Even if the minister hadn’t read the departmental website, wasn’t she properly briefed by DFO officials?
The second point, is that whether or not the Simushir was in actually in Canada’s territorial waters is irrelevant. Custom going back centuries, and now the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and even the Canada Shipping Act all require the master of a capable vessel to render assistance once that vessel receives a distress call or sees that another vessel is in distress.
The Safety of Life at Sea Convention
… the master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so.
And the Canada Shipping Act requires
Every qualified person who is the master of a vessel in any waters, on receiving a signal from any source that a person, a vessel or an aircraft is in distress, shall proceed with all speed to render assistance and shall, if possible, inform the persons in distress or the sender of the signal.
The master of a vessel in Canadian waters and every qualified person who is the master of avessel in any waters shall render assistance to every person who is found at sea and in danger of being lost.
Note the phrase any waters. Not just in Canadian territorial waters as the Shea, the minister responsible for the ocean seemed to imply in her Commons answers.
That once again calls into question Shea’s fitness to be a minister of the Crown.
If she did not know about the UN conventions on the law of the sea, of which Canada is signatory, or the Canada Shipping Act, she is not up for the job as Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.
If, as the minister responsible for oceans, she knew the law and was told by the PMO to mislead the House of Commons, she is is irresponsible and MPs should ask the Speaker if she actually broke the rules of the House.
UN training document on the Law of the Sea Convention, including rescue at sea. (pdf)
Regulation Seven of the Annex on Search and Rescue Services states
Each Contracting Government undertakes to ensure that necessary arrangements are made for distress communication and co-ordination in their area of responsibility and for the rescue of persons in distress at sea around its coasts. These arrangements shall include the establishment, operation and maintenance of such search and rescue facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary, having regard to the density of the seagoing traffic and the navigational dangers, and shall, so far as possible, provide adequate means of locating and rescuing such persons.
Note that the regulation does not say within territorial waters, but “around its coasts.”
Canada has always rendered assistance to distressed vessels not just up and down the coast but around the world. Take the case of HMCS Chartlottetown. On February 3, 2008, HMCS Chartlottetown on anti-piracy and anti-terrorist patrol in the North Arabian Sea, spotted a rusty barge with some men stranded on the deck. It turned out the men were from Pakistan and that the vessel towing the barge had sunk with all hands, leaving only the men on the barge alive. The North Arabian Sea is far out side Canadian territorial waters.
On must wonder then if the Harper Government, or at least Minister Shea is suggesting that this country ignore centuries of maritime law and custom and, in the future, pass that barge by because it was not in Canadian waters?
Perhaps buried in the next omnibus bill we will see the Harper Government restrict rescue at sea to Canadian territorial waters. Farfetched? Well that is what Minister Shea’s answer in the Commons seems to suggest.
Given the cutbacks to the Coast Guard services over the past few years, and if there are going to be large tankers, whether LNG or bitumen, on the west coast, it is an open question whether or not the Harper government has actually made those “arrangements shall include the establishment, operation and maintenance of such search and rescue facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary, having regard to the density of the seagoing traffic and the navigational dangers, and shall, so far as possible, provide adequate means of locating and rescuing such persons.”
Now comes the question of the use of the tug Barbara Foss and the two Smit tugs that later joined to tow the Simushir into Prince Rupert harbour.
It is the responibility of the owner or manager of a disabled vessel, large or small, to contract with a tug or towing service to safely take it back to port. But, and it’s a big but, the tow begins only when it is safe to do so, if there is a danger of the ship foundering, sinking or running aground, it is the obligation of all the responding vessels to render assistance, not just the tug contracted to do the job.
(There are reports that the Simushir owners chose to hire the Barbara Foss rather than the heavy duty Smit tugs available at Prince Rupert. Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of Seaspan told Gary Mason of The Globe and Mail that there are about 80 boats on the west coast, capable of heavy-duty towing, but noted that as in the case of the Simushir, those vessels may not be available when needed)
While around the Lower Mainland of BC, even a small boat that has run out of gas or has engine trouble can get commercial assistance from many service providers, the same is not true of the north coast, or at Haida Gwaii, where are no such regular services. Seapan’s Whitworth told The Globe and Mail there is often a 6,000 horsepower log hauling tug that works off Haida Gwaii. but he also noted that it would be too expensive to have a tug permanently moored on the archipelago.
That means mariners who run out of gas or have engine trouble, say on Douglas Channel, have to call Prince Rupert Coast Guard radio and request assistance either from nearby vessels or from the volunteer Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue service. RCMSAR policy says that a the rescue boat will not tow a vessel if “commercial assistance is reguarly available.” If commercial assistance is not available RCMSAR is only obligated to tow the boat as far as a “safe haven,” where the boat can tie up safely or contract for that “commercial assistance.”
Here on Douglas Channel the safe haven is usually Kitimat harbour and thus during the summer frequently either a good Samaritan vessel or RCMSAR take the disabled vessel all the way to MK Bay.
Shea’s pat answer to the Opposition questions only betrayed the fact that the east coast minister is woefully ignorant of conditions on the northern coast of British Columbia.
In the old days, a minister who screwed up so badly would be asked to resign. That never happens any more. Ministerial responsibility has sunk to the bottom of the sea.
The bigger picture question seems to be. Why, if the Harper government is so anxious to get hydrocarbons, whether bitumen or natural gas to “tide water” does it keep going out of its way to show its contempt for the people who live on Canada’s west coast?
A note for the voters of Prince Edward Island, where Shea is the member for Egmont. Consider this, if a ship gets into trouble outside the 12 mile limit, trouble that could threaten your beautiful red sandy beaches, you’re likely on your own.