Heiltsuk proposes plan to take strong leadership role in central coast oil spill prevention and response

Bella Bella, B.C. (November 15, 2017) – The Heiltsuk Nation today published a report outlining plans to take to strengthen oil spill prevention and clean-up on the central coast by establishing an Indigenous Marine Response Centre (IMRC).

“When the Nathan E. Stewart oil spill happened last year, we experienced first-hand what passes for a ‘world class’ spill response,” says Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett of Heiltsuk Tribal Council.  “We waited for hours for a team to arrive, only to have them deploy defective equipment, in unfamiliar conditions, without safety gear or training for volunteer responders. As our community’s economy, environment, and way of life hung in the balance, we promised ourselves this would never happen in our territory again.”

The report Creating a World-Leading Response Plan describes the likelihood and distribution of various types of marine incidents on the central north coast, examines best spill response practices around the world, and, ultimately, puts forward a plan for the IMRC that will vastly improve marine safety and safeguard the environment.

In short, the proposed IMRC will:

●      be located in Heiltsuk territory where 80% of incidents in the study area occur;

●      be staffed by trained crew familiar with the local marine environment;

●      be equipped with vessels and equipment expressly designed for central coast conditions; and

●      respond to 100% of incidents in the study are in five hours or less.

The report was prepared by experts in marine safety and engineering, and shares priorities outlined in the federal government’s 2016 Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan (OPP). In particular, the IMRC plan shares the OPP’s focus on indigenous-led responses and dedication to “a world-leading marine safety system that improves responsible shipping and protects Canada’s waters, including new preventive and response measures”.

“Heiltsuk have been protecting and stewarding our territory since time immemorial,” says Hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt. “This proposal is a natural evolution of that work, and builds on the best available local knowledge and technology. We look forward to implementing this with the support of all other levels of government and our neighbours. We do this not only for Heiltsuk, but for all who travel within and through our territories.”

Advance copies of the report have been shared with Transport Canada, Canadian Coast Guard, Western Canada Marine Response Corporation. The report was made available to the public today.

With an initial investment of $11 million by January 1, 2018, the IMRC’s base operations, fleet, and crew could be in effect by summer 2018.

Additional information

  • Copies of the IMRC report are available here
  • Learn more about the 2017 spill here
  • Footage of spill / aftermath available here
  • Photographs of spill / aftermath available here

Media contact

To arrange an interview, please call or email:

  • Ph. 604.649.8613
  • E. media@heiltsuk.ca

Indigenous Marine Response Centre: Creating a World-Leading Marine Response Centre


Prepared by Heiltsuk Tribal Council

Executive Summary


As was demonstrated with the Nathan E. Stewart oil spill response efforts, the current oil spill response capability on the central coast of BC is inadequate, slow, and unsafe.

This report highlights where the need for emergency response capability along the central and north coast of British Columbia is most urgent and outlines a plan for an Indigenous Marine Response Centre (IMRC) near Bella Bella to address this need.

Study design

The study area of interest for this report is spatially defined as from the north end of Vancouver Island to the north end of Principe Island and to Morning Reef in Grenville Channel (i.e., the “response area”).

Data considered in this report includes but is not limited to:

  • vessel transit data from Canadian Coast Guard Marine Communications and Transit Services Data; • incident data from the Transportation Safety Board and Pacific Pilotage Authority; and
  • a global review of best practices and guiding principles regarding safety, incident prevention, and environmental protection.

What follows is a discussion of results and associated recommendations.

Results & proposal

The IMRC proposed in this document strives for excellence in oil spill clean-up and prevention.

Unlike typical spill response for the central coast, which is only deployed once a spill occurs, the IMRC will respond to a wide variety of marine incidents that could lead to oil contaminating the environment in the response area such as those classified as groundings, fires, bottom contacts, and capsizes.

The IMRC will be located on Denny Island across from Bella Bella, with satellite stations throughout the central coast.

The IMRC will be prepared to respond at a moment’s notice, and will consist of crew who are stationed at the centre, who live in the area, and who are familiar with the region, waterways, and weather conditions.

Incident response times

Approximately three incidents occur per month in the study area, with 80% of all incidents to date having occurred within Heiltsuk Territory.

In this scenario, 100% of incidents in the study area can be reached in five hours or less with fast response vessels travelling at 30 knots from Bella Bella.

The proposed site for the IMRC is the former BC Packers Site on Denny Island. It is a large waterfront property with sufficient space to house the land-based operation and mooring facilities for a fleet of response vessels. This site is conveniently located adjacent to the existing Canadian Coast Guard base, allowing for easy communication and co-operation between the two organizations.

Establishing the IMRC at the BC Packers site ensures:

  • 40%-50% of incidents will be responded to within 1 hour;
  • 75% of incidents will be responded to within 2 hours;
  • 80% of incidents will be responded to within 3 hours; and
  • 100% of incidents will be responded to within 5 hours.

Other jurisdictions in the world have published response times of 3 to 11 hours, with an average of 7.5 hours. The IMRC response time of 5 hours or less falls well within the current definition of “world-leading” response times.

Fleet & equipment

Based on expert advice and consultation with suppliers around the world, Sections 5 and 7 identify the vessels and supplies that are necessary and suitable for rapid and comprehensive response in BC’s central and north coast.

In brief, the IMRC’s effectiveness hinges on a fleet of fast response vessels capable of oil clean-up and containment, and a tug and barge system providing storage and additional oil spill clean-up capabilities. The barge – equipped with a range of safety gear, clean-up equipment, provisions, and living quarters – ensures the response team is able to work on site for up to three weeks without outside support. Currently, there do not appear to be booms and skimmers available that would perform well in central coast marine conditions.

Inshore booms and harbour booms, like much of what was deployed (and failed) in the Nathan E. Stewart response – simply do not stand up to the large waves and fast currents typical of central coast waters. Until specialized equipment is developed for containment in fast-flowing waters, offshore booms would make up a predominate part of the IMRC boom inventory, along with high strength Spectra fibre rope and high load anchors on the shoreline.

The development and testing of new and innovative oil boom designs is urgently needed. The IMRC will seek industry partnerships and local knowledge to help develop and field test designs, materials, and deployment on an on-going basis.

Staff & crew

The IMRC will employ 37 full time staff and crew, with vessel operators and response centre workers conducting shift work.

All crew will undergo a comprehensive training program, reviewed every three years (approximately) to ensure it is up to date. Prerequisites for crew will be that they live in the area and are familiar with the region, waterways, and weather conditions.


The annual operating cost of the IMRC is estimated to be $6.8 million.

Start-up costs include:

  • Development of an IMRC with Interim Response Capability: $99.8 M
  • Three Satellite Storage Depots: $11.7 M

To enable response to incidents while the construction of the land and marine infrastructure is being completed, interim response capabilities can be put in place immediately. This includes the purchase of vessels and equipment, the recruitment and training of crew, and research and development to support immediate and future IMRC operations.


In light of the remote, challenging environment, this proposal for a Heiltsuk-led IMRC provides the closest option to an instantaneous response to incidents that could lead to an oil spill.

The IMRC builds on Heiltsuk’s millennia-long tradition of environmental stewardship and leverages the best-available western and traditional knowledge. Together with the federal government, industry, and neighbouring nations, the IMRC represents an Indigenous-led response to vastly improve environmental protections and marine safety to the benefit of Heiltsuk, the central coast, British Columbia, and Canada.

Download the full report here.