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Mamquam Blind Channel

Derelicts and dolphins make waves for the future


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A crushed black, basalt-gravel driveway leads to Squamish Marine Services' office on the foreshore of Manquam Blind Channel. Blue wood smoke curls from the chimney of a 20-metre beached ex-seine boat down the channel.

"It was a 60-ton seiner, now it's 60 tons of garbage," Chris Tamburri, director of Squamish Marine Services says looking out his office window.  

There are about 35 vessels that are derelict, liveaboards or trespassing in Mamquam Blind Channel, a body of water stretching from the headwaters of Howe Sound and under the Mamquam train bridge before petering out in the mudflats of an old slough about three kilometres inland.

"The reason this place got attacked by vagrant vessels is that industry shut down," Tamburri, who came to Squamish 40 years ago, continues.

There was a time when Mamquam Channel drummed with activity.  

"In the '70s, '80s and early '90s whether it was log-boom storage, or booming production, or shipping or marine transportation Howe Sound was full of industry," Tamburri recounts.  

There were a dozen dozer boats, five or six major industrial customers, a sawmill, chemical plants and railway yards. The globalization of industry changed everything.

"Locally I think one day we all just woke up, and, 'holy Christ where did our industrial tax base go,'" he says.

Derelict vessels were moved in to take up the void space at the docks and tie-up grounds. Twenty-five years later abandoned vessels and derelict infrastructure are still very much a presence in Mamquam Blind Channel. On the opposite shore from Tamburri's office a flotilla of used blue tarps, Styrofoam and other unidentified items are tied to a decrepit wood waste dock. Further down shore more wood smoke pours from the chimney of a peeling white float-house.  

Tamburri says that probably a dozen vessels in Mamquam Channel pose a risk to navigation. These are commercial vessels including an old suction dredge and pumping station, a covered pulp barge, a wooden mine sweeper and an old wooden tug that has been there for 12 years.  

"We're worried (about) pollution from these derelict vessels," Tamburri says.

Squamish is not the only harbour in Howe Sound affected by derelict and abandoned vessels. A pebbly, sandy beach greets visitors to Mannion Bay on Bowen Island. Across the water where 21 abandoned sailboats are anchored, evergreen trees dominate an undeveloped ridge.  

"No one swims here," Bonnie Brokenshire, a senior bylaws officer with the Bowen Island Municipality, says. The water quality is often affected by high coliform counts. This contamination is thought to come from some aging septic fields along Terminal Creek that empties into Mannion Bay. To be fair, pollution from wild fowl is also a concern. There's also potential pollution from unrestricted emptying of bilges or the lack of holding tanks in some of the liveaboards and sunken vessels in the bay. Derelict and abandoned vessels are also affecting tourism on Bowen.

"It has huge economic ramifications when yachts don't come to the bay," Brokenshire continues.

Mannion Bay is a short five-minute walk to Snug Cove, a haven of small shops, bustling cafes and amenities. The same kind of enthusiasm exists near the foot of Second Avenue in Squamish where a group of artist and yoga studios, architects' offices and sculptors set up shop about five years ago.

Photographer Dave Humphreys, another local tenant, is just putting his skis away after shooting the World Ski and Snowboard Festival in Whistler as I ask him about Mamquam Blind Channel.

"Tourism is growing," he says. "The environment is not really set up for docking but people come."

There's a huge groundswell of public opinion against derelict vessels, much of it directed at liveaboards. Local Squamish beachcomber, Jeremy Johnstone, has been living aboard his 12-metre cruiser for about three years.

"I've been on the waiting list to get to the government dock for the last two years," he says.  

Johnstone says there are two types of liveaboards.

"Last summer we had quite a few party boats," he says by way of describing one of the types. "...The lower element that was throwing garbage in the water and junkies and drunks. A lot of those people are gone."

Johnstone says there is a community of boats in Mamquam Blind Channel who want a spot at the dock — the second type.

"There are at least five people who are doing it properly," he says. "They have holding tanks and off-load their garbage."

Incidents of abandoned and derelict vessels are a long-standing problem in Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia. 

"It's hard to put a dollar value on it, but I would say from a staffing perspective over a one-year period there's probably 100 hours dedicated to the issue on Bowen," Brokenshire explains.

A large cabin cruiser washed up on Sandy Beach in 2012 cost Bowen Island taxpayers $4,000 to demolish. In 2013, council put $15,000 towards cleaning up Mannion Bay. These derelict vessels are mostly sailboats between six and nine metres long. Some of the vessels that have sunk are powerboats with the engines still in them. Harbour managers and mariners from Squamish to Sydney on southern Vancouver Island agree that there have to be changes to legislation to deal with the problem.  

"(There are) really good strong relationships forged between jurisdictions, but it really comes down to who pays for it," Brokenshire says.      

Often what happens is someone will buy a vessel with the dream of fixing it up, then they find out rebuilding costs too much, and so they walk away. It's hard to track these people down.

"Somewhere they've got to have better record-keeping stock of who owns these damn things," Bob Baziuk, general manager of the Steveston Harbour Authority in Steveston begins. "We're losing revenue and if a lot of the bigger boats sink it could break a harbour authority."  

This could also happen in Squamish. The Squamish Harbour Authority has no jurisdiction, for example, over the JS Polhemus, an old navy tug tied up to pilings near a cluster of abandoned sailboats. The tug is on property that is owned by interests where there was once a sawmill.

"That's not a water-lot lease," Bill McEnry, a spokesperson for the Squamish Harbour Authority explains. "That used to be a mud flat. When they built the sawmill they dredged all that out so they could have a pond to put their logs. That's just the same as land. The only thing is the land is about 20 feet (six metres) under the water."

This land belongs to the current owners of the sawmill site who are in receivership. That means if the JS Polhemus were to sink it would be a nightmare for Squamish because the municipality would have to pay for the cleanup.      

Janet Rooke, harbour manager at Tseeum Harbour Authority in Sydney on Vancouver Island, also sits on the board of the Harbour Authority Association of British Columbia Directors and represents the south zone on Vancouver Island.   

"In 2008 we formed a derelict committee and started trying to put together information in hopes we can stand before Ottawa and get some action on this," Rooke says, adding that's there is a danger where vessels have been abandoned.

"We've had 59 boats at anchor in Sydney Harbour," Rooke continues. "If any of these vessels break free they can get into navigable channels and cause hazards to mariners or residents or end up on the beach."

Four boats did recently go up on the rocks in Tseeum Harbor including a 15-metre steel sailboat that floated off with the tide and smashed into other boats at anchor. The Coast Guard had to be called in to subdue the sailboat.  

Another incident in Britannia Beach is testament to how dangerous abandoned vessels can be. Britannia Beach resident Bill Whitehouse and a companion were standing right beside the 48-metre United States rescue tug Seaspan Chinook when a cable snapped.

"She just went down like a rocket," Whitehouse recounts.

The Coast Guard located the wreck before the tides dropped it over the edge into 300 metres of water. Most of the hydrocarbons had been removed and no salvage was attempted.  

Transport Canada responds to derelict vessels when a vessel poses an obstruction to navigation or is a pollution threat. The Coast Guard is responsible for the ship-source of pollution including hydrocarbons; bunker oil, lubricating fuel, stove oils and gasoline or diesel. The Environmental Response Program monitors the clean-up efforts for any ship-source, or mystery source, pollution incident in waters under Canadian jurisdiction. Fuel or lubricants are removed from the lines to minimize the threat to the environment.   

"I think it's important to note that each of those items have a different level of persistence in the water," Dan Bate, communications officer for the Canadian Coast Guard, explains. "A highly refined product such as gasoline, or aviation fuel, usually evaporates through wave and wind action. At the other end of the scale you've got a product like Bunker C, which is a heavy, thick tar substance that has a much different staying effect in water."

Progress is being made on the problems surrounding derelict and abandoned vessels. Prior to April 1, under the Navigation Protection Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act, when a vessel or work barge obstructed navigation, Transport Canada (TC) could order the vessel to be relocated or removed. The owner of the vessel would generally have one week to comply. As of April 1, if the owner cannot be located and the vessel is a serious obstruction then TC can take appropriate action without delay.

Rooke believes that Transport Canada's initiative is a step in the right direction, but that not all of the responsibility for dealing with abandoned vessels should be put on the shoulders of Transport Canada. "I think it has to be a shared cost throughout all levels of government."            

It may come as a shock to some that 77 per cent of the 19,144 fishing vessels registered with the Licensed Vessel Registry in Canada are more than 30 years old. Ryan Greville, acting manager of the Navigable Waters Protection Program in Vancouver, is the first to acknowledge that vessels are getting older. "The fishing industry has been in decline and we're going to be seeing a lot more vessels abandoned when their owners are finished with them."

The Study of the Extent of Abandoned and Derelict Vessels in Canada conducted by Transport Canada to develop a policy for managing abandoned and derelict vessels is a way of dealing with the problem at the federal level; the Five Year Fraser River Improvement Initiative developed by Port Metro Vancouver was announced on Sept. 18, 2013, to improve municipal waterways.

As the most diversified port in North America, doing business with 160 trading companies annually, Port Metro Vancouver has taken steps to clean up abandoned and derelict fishing vessels, sailboats and pleasure craft from Fraser River municipalities, the City of Port Moody and Port Metro Vancouver. Approximately $2 million has been committed over five years to the initiative.

There is no such initiative for Howe Sound, but Transport Canada is currently researching the recycling and disposal option. In January 2014 a letter was sent to municipalities in Howe Sound asking for specific information on the location and characteristics of these vessels in their area. This information will be used to develop a strategy for the long-term solution of derelict and abandoned vessels. Brokenshire is pleased with this development.

"Having a good, detailed inventory throughout Howe Sound is very important. It's just so beneficial having photographs of all the vessels because historically a vessel will just leave, or be kicked out of, some area and it will just move around. It really is a collaborative effort."  

Tamburri agrees. "Grassroots level always works. The Transport Canada initiative through the District of Squamish will be used to identify the details of the problem and hopefully we can work together with all partners to create a solution."

In early March Streamkeepers, a volunteer group that has been working to improve herring habitat in Howe Sound, helped remove a dozen small boats from Mamquam Blind Channel and take them to the dump for recycling.

"We used to have a big herring run in Howe Sound," Dr. John Matsen, a spokesperson with Streamkeepers recounts. "By the end of the '70s industry had basically killed all the herring."

There was a 20-year gap, and then a log scaler was scaling a boom of logs in Mamquam Blind Channel in 1999 that had come from Nelson Island, explains Matsen, and "It was covered with herring eggs.

"They hatched out and came back three years later to spawn."

Streamkeepers wrapped 60 creosote pilings under the Squamish Terminal dock with a weed control membrane for spawning herring. It worked. In 2007 Streamkeepers volunteers witnessed the first hatch-out.

"In 2010 we knew that the herring came in because there were 300 dolphins chasing them up the channel," Matsen says.

With all the talk about more industry in Howe Sound, a recent incident near Defense Island illustrates how carefully we must proceed. Two volunteers were diving and saw fresh herring eggs all around.

"Then these two divers felt a whoomph right in their gut," Matsen recounts. "It almost knocked the wind out of them."

The divers surfaced and about two kilometres to the north, across from Furry Creek, they saw workers blasting surface rock to make a level landing for helicopter logging this summer.

"What happened was it shattered the eggs that were two kilometres away and stunned a lot of the herring — (they) were actually falling to the bottom and the crabs were eating them," Matsen says.

A delegation of Streamkeepers recently visited Woodfibre as part of their outreach and exploration.

"The people were very cooperative," Matsen says. "We want them to know before they start developing Woodfibre that there is a window where herring eggs are very delicate."    

How long a vessel sits abandoned in harbour depends on whether that vessel is a pollution threat or whether it sinks. Many vessels have come to a sad end. The Ready, a former Coast Guard response boat, was tied up for years at a pier on Crown Land foreshore just south of Britannia when it sank. Vandals had tried to steal the prop.

"At one time at low tide you could see the top of the mast," George McLaren, a long-time resident of Britannia, recalls with some distain.              

The Ready still sits in about eight metres of water.    

Tying vessels up that no longer have a purpose is a risk in any harbour. That was brought home to residents of Britannia 10 years ago when the cruise ship, Prince George, caught fire. Black, acrid smoke blew right across the highway.

"It was pretty freaky," a waitress who was working at The Ninety Niner café recalls. McLaren was the fire chief at the time.

"It was arson," he says. "There was so much asbestos and contaminants in that old boat, we had to quit putting water on because there was the danger of it flipping over and sinking. We had to let it burn out."

Greville, of the Navigable Waters Protection Program, gets a lot of calls regarding abandoned vessels.

"The Receiver of Wreck (an official who administers law dealing with wreck and salvage) is more of an instrument to act on the owner's behalf for a vessel that is in distress when the owner is not known," he explains. "If a vessel is tied to a dock it's not usually in distress and so is not really a Receiver of Wreck issue."

Most times salvage operations are related to what the value of the vessel is when it goes down. Normally salvage is either instigated by an Insurance company on behalf of the owner or by the owners themselves.

"Only motor vessels with an engine that's greater than 10 horsepower are required to be licensed," Greville continues. "This includes pleasure boats. If it's a registered vessel then it's the seller's responsibility to ensure that the new owner registers the vessel, but there's no follow-up on that side."

This is a source of constant frustration for harbour authorities.

As of April 1, Transport Canada will have the power to enable the dock owner to take proactive measures under conditions that the Minister of Transportation deems appropriate. Still, some salvage operations can't be carried out. A large squid boat, wrecked off very rugged and remote Alaskan coastline, deteriorated with its cargo on board. The rotting squid gave off methane gas making a salvage operation too dangerous.

"Many times you have to look at whether the risk to human life is worth the salvage of the vessel," Greville says.

As industrial activity diminished in Howe Sound Mother Nature has recovered. Much of this can be attributed to an abundance of fresh water draining into the headwaters near Squamish from five rivers.   

"It's been a pretty dramatic comeback after the shutdown of a chemical plant and a pulp mill that had been operating for a hundred years," says Tamburri, who believes the re-industrialization of Howe Sound could be a good thing. There are labour and transportation sources close by, and technology is available for clean industry. Still, he remains worried.     

"It's just that it affects the bottom line and that's still the wrong way to do things. You can't have a detrimental effect on the environment these days and think you're going to get away with it."

The cleanup of Mamquam Blind Channel, one small step for Squamish and a giant leap for Howe Sound, is something that is long overdue.


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