WCMRC Responds to Transport Canada Discussion Paper on Marine Pollution Response

Through the Oceans Protection Plan, the federal government is improving their ability to work together with Indigenous communities, the marine industry, and other partners to respond to marine pollution incidents that involve oil and/or hazardous and noxious substances. As part of this work, the Government of Canada is proposing to develop a single system to respond to all such marine pollution incidents, regardless of their source.

In support of the federal initiative, WCMRC has submitted to Transport Canada our thoughts on improvements for the regime. Below is a summary of our response to the four enhancement themes of the Marine Pollution Preparedness, Response and Recovery (MPPRR) proposal and an overview of other gaps within the regime that WCMRC has identified.


Western Canada Marine Response (WCMRC) is the Transport Canada certified Response Organization (RO) for Canada’s West Coast. We provide the equipment (vessels, skimmers, boom, shoreline clean-up, storage) and personnel for any size of spill response operation. Our staff are trained in the Incident Command System, and we can staff a wide range of roles in an Incident Command Post. With over 45 years of experience responding to spills on Canada’s West Coast, we are the experts.

We have led the way in developing digital coastal mapping and protection strategies (Geographic Response Strategies) for the West Coast. Our Coastal Response Program pioneered a new approach to involving First Nations and coastal communities in spill response.

As one of four certified ROs in Canada, WCMRC is proud to be a principal party in the National Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime that the federal government established in the mid-1990s. We take an active interest in new initiatives under the Oceans Protection Plan and are strong believers in and members of the Canadian Coast Guard’s (CCG) Integrated Response Plan working groups (PIER).

However, we recognize that there remain gaps in the regime, including salvage, alternative response measures, hazardous and noxious substances, and post-incident recovery. Many key partners, including First Nations and coastal communities, were not included in the original development of the current regime. Further, change is coming to the international and Canadian shipping industries and Canada must be able to adapt. All systems require continuous improvement, and we applaud the federal government’s initial work in preparing for these changes. Our comments on the four main components of the Transport Canada MPPRR discussion paper are outlined below.


WCMRC is encouraged to hear the federal government is committed to creating a ‘single, coordinated response system that will improve how we prepare for, respond to and recover from all marine pollution incidents, regardless of source.’

Over the past few years, numerous Area, Regional, and Integrated Response Planning initiatives on the West Coast have made significant progress in documenting and standardizing the roles of federal and provincial agencies, as well as the involvement of First Nations and local communities during incidents. While CCG’s Integrated Response Plans (Greater Vancouver, Juan de Fuca, Georgia Strait, West Vancouver Island) have arguably been the most successful of these initiatives, the plans do not address the more technical and tactical concerns of a response.

We feel that a National Response Plan would help to coordinate these different initiatives into a more comprehensive and strategic approach for the entire country. A National Response Plan would formally integrate federal government agencies, provincial agencies, response organizations, First Nations, municipalities, and international mutual aid partners. Strong and consistent collaboration between these partners is a key component of a successful response.

A National Response Plan should also integrate all response resources and ensure all response tools are available to responders. The plan should allow for alternative response measures based on sound science. A lack of direction on these measures has severely impeded the ability of Canadian ROs to plan for large scale incidents. Other challenges for ROs that the plan should address include restrictions on decanting and burdensome requirements for secondary storage.

We also feel that ROs are uniquely positioned to act as advisors to Unified Command during a response and that this role should be formalized in a National Response Plan. ROs are one of the few constants during incidents and, except for CCG, are often the only ones with operational knowledge. It is important that the members of Unified Command have ready access to this information as part of their decision making. WCMRC has developed the role of ‘Spill Response Manager’ as a technical adviser to Unified Command and would like to see this position formalized.

Another missing piece from the larger national picture is the Department of National Defense (DND) and the equipment the navy keeps for their own spills. Adding DND equipment to a national database of equipment that includes the RO’s and CCG would provide a more fulsome picture of the national capacity. Another key partner that has been left out of the planning is the Canada Border Services Agency and the role they play in facilitating cross border response.

Finally, a National Response Plan would allow for a national exercise program. WCMRC certification exercise objectives no longer capture the full range of objectives that should form a comprehensive national exercise program (e.g. places of refuge). A national exercise program could formalize the objectives of a wide range of response partners, including First Nations and coastal communities.

The development of a National Response Plan and exercise program would require the collaboration of a wide range of partners and experts. Ocean Protection Plan initiatives can help inform key areas of the document. National and regional working groups will need to be established to develop this new national response system.


Recently the Canadian Coast Guard has taken a more active leadership role in responding to spills on the West Coast. We strongly support this transition from Federal Monitoring Officer to Federal Incident Commander. The Canadian Coast Guard’s authority and direction should not be in doubt during a response. An emergency is not the time for grey areas.

It is important not only for those involved in the response but also for the public to have a clear understanding of the Canadian Coast Guard’s authority. Visible and decisive federal leadership is crucial for gaining public confidence in a response effort.

In the 2014, the Tanker Safety Expert Panel’s released its Phase II report, “A Review of Canada’s Ship-source Spill Preparedness and Response.” The report proposed establishing a centralized marine casualty decision-making authority acting in the public interest, like those authorities established in the United Kingdom and Australia. A similar authority should be granted to CCG in Canada.

In addition to casualty decision-making authority, we believe that CCG should be able to authorize approval for any response related activities, including use of alternative response measures and decanting. This authority can be supported by recommendations made by the Environmental Unit, which is currently lead by Environment and Climate Change Canada. In areas where there is overlapping or conflicting federal jurisdiction, the CCG should have the authority to make the final decision as best benefits the response.

Finally, the CCG should be the authors and owners of the National Response Plan. While it should be developed in collaboration with all partners, a national plan will require clear ownership.


Canada’s response regime is founded and funded on the polluter pay principle. The Shipping Act requires large vessels (400 GT and greater; 150 GT and greater if transporting oil) to have a membership with a certified response organization. Yet, most incidents that WCMRC responds to are those not covered under the Canada Shipping Act.

On average, WCMRC responds to 20 spills per year. The vast majority of these are marine diesel spills, which dissipate quickly in the marine environment and are often non-recoverable. A typical response is a small marine diesel spill that involves one or two days of clean-up. These incidents most often involve smaller vessels, including fishing vessels, equipment barges and derelict vessels. A revised regime should account for the pollution risks from these vessels and ensure they contribute towards the funding of the response regime.

Funding for the Canadian response regime needs to be updated to adapt to where the risks are today and where they will be in the future. We are beginning to see the marine sector, both internationally and domestically, take steps to transition away from fossil fuels to power vessels.

Maersk, the largest container shipping line and vessel operator in the world, has commissioned the construction of methanol powered deep-sea vessels. Local tug operators are also exploring methanol powered tugs. Analysis from class society DNV shows methanol was the second most popular alternative fuel choice for newbuild orders last year after LNG, with 35 ships ordered, bringing the total count to 82 ships. Several industry partners are collaborating on an ammonia-fueled, zero-carbon emitting tanker.

A low-carbon shipping sector does not mean an end to spills, it merely transforms the challenge. Research needs to be conducted to better understand what response would look like to large scale spills of alternative fuels. Under Canada’s current polluter pay laws methanol and ammonia spills are unfunded. The regime should retain the flexibility to add fees to new sources of potential pollution to ensure it transitions to meet the needs and risks of a low-carbon transport sector.


The federal government has made strides in engaging with coastal First Nations and Coastal communities in response planning. The PIER initiative is the first federal effort to meaningfully involve municipalities and First Nations in response planning and should receive the necessary support to continue and be expanded nationally. In addition to involvement in planning initiatives, CCG now provides funding and training to coastal First Nations. We strongly support these initiatives, however, caution that these initiatives should be under the current umbrella of the Response Organizations/Regime and not one-off initiatives. It is critical for both safety and effective response to ensure a clear coordinated response is undertaken by trained responders.

As the Coast Guard continues to implement their program of providing coastal First Nations with funding and training, it will be important that it is done in a coordinated effort with RO’s and a Nation’s role in a response is clearly identified in response plans and coordinated through Unified Command. Without roles and responsibilities being clearly defined in response plans, there will be safety and management concerns if entities are acting outside of the ICS structure during an incident.

In a recent announcement, CCG referred to the new Heiltsuk Marine Emergency Response Team as a ‘third-party responder.’ As new response partners are integrated into the regime, it will be crucial to include joint planning, training, and exercising as core components.

While increased response capacity in coastal First Nation communities is a benefit to the regime, if the federal intention is to adopt a third-party responder model across Canada many questions will need to be addressed and a new funding mechanism will need to be developed. Some of the questions that will need to be answered include:

  • What will be the roles and responsibilities of third-party responders?
  • How will third-party responders integrate into the current regime?
  • The current regime is based on the well-established ‘polluter-pay’ principle. Will industry be asked to further fund third-party responders? Will taxpayers?
  • What will be the industry’s requirements with regards to their relationship with third-party responders?
  • Who will be responsible for notifying and activating third-party responders during an incident?
  • Under the current response regime, response organizations are required to be certified by Transport Canada. Will third-party responders require certification like response organizations?
  • How will responder immunity apply to third-party responders?

A possible model for integration and collaboration is WCMRC’s Coastal Response Program. The program has seen success integrating communities and coastal First Nations into response planning and preparedness. Under the program, there are several ways communities can get involved in spill response planning and prepare for an incident, including helping to identify local sensitivities, becoming a response contractor, participating in training workshops, or simply learning what to expect if a spill occurs. Roles are formalized and expectations are clearly set out.

In 2022, as part of the Coastal Response Program, WCMRC conducted joint training with RCM-SAR and Malahat Nation to deploy protection strategies for Galiano Island in the southern Gulf Islands. We feel this model of joint preparedness between coastal First Nations, communities, CCG and response organizations can form a model for the rest of the country. This approach was profiled in a recent Times-Colonist article: Preparing for Disaster.


The exclusion of hazardous and noxious substances (HNS) and other non-Canada Shipping Act spills in Canada’s current marine incident preparedness plans is a gap that WCMRC supports the government in closing. The question is does it fit under the umbrella of the current RO preparedness structure or should it be a stand-alone regime? From a WCMRC perspective, both could fall under the umbrella structure of the response organizations. In fact, today the RO’s respond to non-CSA or third-party spills not covered under the current regulated regime. That said, for the HNS side of preparedness and response there would have to be a separate operating arm of trained HNS responders dedicated to handle the various types of HNS spills. The key message is that any additional HNS responsibilities around preparedness and response cannot take away capacity already dedicated top oil spill response.

There are many synergies that could be taken advantage of from the overall organizational support functions like logistics, human resource management (e.g. payroll, policies), finance, inventory management system, maintenance system, ICS structure and support roles, infrastructure in place, exercise planning and training programs.

There is a real operational and financial benefit to integrate HNS and other non-CSA spills under the current regime rather than create another separate regime that would not only compete for personnel but would be time consuming to implement.

The question is how do you fund the additional non-CSA / HNS division of an RO organization? Options could include:

  • Charging a BOCF for products such as canola oil or for OHF’s transferring chemical products
  • Creating a chemical tanker/container fee
  • Non-ship source RO membership fee
  • Foreign versus domestic vessel fee
  • Chemical handling facility fee
  • Fee by vessel size and/or product type.

A workshop or committee with knowledgeable government and industry personnel could look at current worldwide options and create the most cost-effective funding structure to support HNS preparedness and response.


In addition to the points raised previously in this document, there are several additional considerations that should be implemented to enhance today’s preparedness and response capability. These include:

  • Establishment of a National Research & Continuous Improvement Committee with capability of expediting change
  • Umbrella legislation to include non-ship source spills under the current responder immunity legislation
  • Labour Code changes to recognize responders and hours of work. Currently limited to 40 + 8 per week unless they have an averaging agreement in place. Initial hours within a response are critical to the success and operating hours are defined by Unified Command by shift per day. As an example, crews may be requested to work 7×12-hour shifts in order to maximize recovery operations and minimize impact of a spill.
  • Clear protocols for Mutual Aid and foreign response organizations assistance
  • Canadian Coast Guard Agreement in place with Response Organizations to ensure a rapid response and for transition from a polluter managed spill to a government (CCG) managed spill (e.g. polluter reaches limit of liability, mystery spills)
  • Research projects like those managed under the Multi Partner Research Initiative have a set time limit for publication and implementation of recommendations. The last initiatives under MPRI (6 yrs. old) have still not been implemented after $40+ million spent in research


In closing, WCMRC appreciates the opportunity to comment on the MPPRR proposal. We are supportive of initiatives to build response capability for non-CSA and HNS response. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further and look at the opportunity to integrate response for all products under the current response organization regime.

24-Hour Spill Emergency Line

Activate Us