REFLECTIONS ON THE PRESTIGE OIL DISASTER: (Part 3) ‘Don’t make me fish off Cape St. Mary’s’

The tourism ads hype Newfoundland as “the Far East of the Western world,” but its waters are the waste-oil dumps of the Northwest Atlantic


Part Three of a four-part series. Part One is here, Part Two is here, and Part Four is yet to be published.

HALIFAX  (March 25, 2004) – THERE ARE 365 islands in Newfoundland’s Placentia Bay. Fog reduces visibility to less than a kilometre an average 187 days a year. Hundreds of oil tankers – almost 300 in the year 2000 alone – enter that body of water and its prime fishing grounds, along with dozens of small fishing boats manned by crews who come from families that have fished the bay for centuries. The amount of shipping will be intensified with construction of the new Inco hydrometallurgical demonstration plant in Argentia in Placentia Bay to process concentrate from Voisey’s Bay, Labrador. It is scheduled to open in 2006.

Right from the time that the Come-by-Chance refinery opened in 1970, fishermen’s livelihoods were severely impacted by federal shipping lanes, which were charted to bring the oil tankers from Cape St. Mary’s through Placentia Bay right through their fishing grounds to the refinery in the fastest amount of time. Fishermen are repeatedly told that they must subordinate their interests to assist economic development in the name of “jobs” and “peaceful coexistence” with oil.

For the tankers, three football fields long, the small fishing boats are mere blips on the screen of the radar. As one fisherman apocryphally said, “don’t make me fish off Cape St. Mary’s.”

Russian roulette

The waters off the coast of Newfoundland – an area with high shipping traffic – are so highly vulnerable to disaster that it led the St. John’s Telegram to editorialize that “the similarities between this situation (of Spain) and Newfoundland’s precarious proximity to tanker routes are too numerous to ignore.

“The route the tanker was taking is a regular tanker passage, much like the waters south of this province are. The Prestige was carrying oil from the massive Ventspils port, which brings northern oil by pipeline from Russia; like us, that port is just one of many starting points in the petroleum industry’s worldwide web of trade.

“And the vessel was no further offshore than the tankers are that round Cape St. Mary’s and make their way into Placentia Bay.

“But here’s the real concern: if there was ever a reason to wonder if such a catastrophe could happen here, well, stop to think that the Prestige itself was in Canadian waters less than four years ago.

“It’s Russian roulette with oil instead of bullets, and the trigger gets pulled every single day.” [1]

In fact, on 28 November 1998 the Prestige, the very same tanker responsible for the greatest oil spill ever off the coast of Spain in November 2002, was inspected and passed by Canadian ship inspectors in Port Hawkesbury, NS.

But whether it is oil spills or bilge water dumping, prevention or clean up, Canada’s response has been irresponsible in every aspect. Sovereignty and social responsibility have been abnegated in the interests of the oil multinationals. To cite a few examples:

–        Foreign vessels are required to contact coast guard officials 96 hours prior to entering Canadian waters, relaying information such as position, destination and purpose of entry. But when a ship fails to give notice – there’s no way of knowing if it has.

–        The polluter has responsibility to respond to a spill; the Canadian Coast Guard takes command only if it deems the response not adequate.

–        With regard to tankers spilling oil outside the 200-mile limit, Transport Canada policy is to deny entry into Canadian waters for assistance until its owners can prove it won’t spill any more oil on its way into port – the identical policy followed by Spain – risking larger environmental disasters.

–        Since 9/11 the budget of the coast guard, which is under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), has been frozen. The coast guard is being brought under U.S. Homeland Security, part of Northcom.

–        A 2000 report by federal Auditor General Denis Desautels highlighted serious problems with DFO’s navigational aids, which require more and more visits to service them when funding was being reduced. The study found only three types of aids met the standard for reliability. Lighted floating aids and fixed aids whose lights operate 24 hours a day didn’t cut the mustard.

–        Environment Canada has shut down the Newfoundland weather office and consolidated operations in Halifax. The Halifax office was evacuated during Hurricane Juan early in the morning of 1 October 2003; weather reports were broadcast from Fredericton, itself scheduled for closure.

–        Twelve Newfoundland lighthouses have been automated. The Coast Guard, however, removed the back-up diesel generators, in 2001. The CG slashed 91 of its 900 Newfoundland work force, or ten per cent. “The only reason to take out the generators is to get rid of the technicians,” says Wayne Fagan of the Public Service Alliance, the union representing coast guard workers. A coast guard vessel was also decommissioned and the helicopter fleet reduced to two from four aircraft.

–        Although annual inspections are technically mandatory for tankers entering in Canadian waters, a shortage of inspectors means many are simply not examined.

–        Those deficiencies, which are found, are kept confidential by Transport Canada, noted The Telegram in a two-part series, “Troubled Waters,” and published in November 2001. In an Access to Information Request concerning tankers at Come By Chance and the Whiffen Head terminal (Argentia), The Telegram received inspection reports, but details of deficiencies were blacked out as “confidential” third-party information.

–        Regardless of where the shipping lanes are within the Canadian 200-mile economic zone, there is no restriction on the proximity a tanker can come to shore.

The tanker Braer broke up in 1993 off the tip of the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, near Sullom Voe, an oil terminal, spilling 85,000 tonnes — 620,000 barrels — of oil. (At the time the Braer ran aground, ships not heading to port could pass 10 miles off the coast of the Shetland Islands. As a result of the incident, that rule was changed to 25 miles.)

–        Two thirds of Newfoundland’s maps originate from British colonial times. Just one-third of the coast of the island portion of Newfoundland which runs about 19,000 kilometres and only 10 per cent of Labrador have been surveyed to modern standards.

–        Canada does not maintain an ocean-going tug for tankers that run into trouble at sea.

MV Mokami aground in Cartwright, on Labrador’s coast | Sherry Saunders, CBC

–        Canadian ships account for two-thirds of the spills and oil slicks, and foreign ships account for the remaining one third. A recent Transportation Safety Board report indicates the 91-metre tanker Mokami  – delivering fuel to Inco’s Bay mining site on October 31, 2000 – ran aground in the narrow waters of the Labrador coast because much of its bridge equipment was labeled in Russian, and they couldn’t actually read that language. This tanker was built in Finland, owned by the Woodward Group in Goose Bay, and registered in St. John’s.

“Although tankers pose a high risk to the environment, non-convention tankers (much smaller than the average ocean-going supertankers – editor) are not required to have any form of safety management system nor is there a requirement for the shore management to provide directives to the ship’s staff, especially in critical aspects of marine operations,” stated the report.  (See Appendix Two)

Asks Fabian Manning, a provincial representative for St Brides near Argentia, a terminal for ocean going bulk carriers in Placentia Bay: “How do we feel secure in a society where the concerns that are raised by inspectors … are not public knowledge? How do we know our concerns are being addressed?”

The Telegram traced the histories of 84 tankers that docked in Placentia Bay in the spring of 2001 – 20 of them were 20 or more years old. Another nine were from 17 to 19 years old. The ships’ old age is no coincidence: It is cheaper to insure an old ship than to buy a new one.

Along with oil spills, bilge water dumping – water that is saturated with oil, fuel, and other contaminants – has become a common practice in Canadian waters. Tankers use ballast water for stability when they’re empty of cargo. That too is extremely harmful for the marine environment.

The annual oil dump

EACH YEAR, like clockwork in “December month,” there is an annual event in Placentia Bay, says St. Bride’s inshore fisherman Robert McGrath. It’s more certain than Santa’s visit. “That oil that comes ashore every Christmas when you get the big seas. That’s when all the oily birds are washing up on shore,” he said.

The winter of 2003-04 is no exception. In the first week of December, 2003 dead oiled birds again washed up long a small patch of the southern coastline of Newfoundland between Point Lance and Point Verde.

This danger has been reduced to a mere cost of capitalist production and transportation. Fines are provided for under the Canada Shipping Act for illegal bilge water dumping. They are nominal.

It is far more profitable for the shipping companies to illegally dump and even risk a fine than to pay dumping fees in port. Transport Canada for its part has reduced the question to the pragmatic level of the number of successful prosecutions and the amount of fines levied by the courts.

Yet an analysis of the statistics shows that the average amount of fines paid by the shipping owners decreased by one third since 1994.

Transport Canada reported 24 successful prosecutions between 1994 and 2001, three a year, with an average fine of only $21,437 (although the highest fine paid to date is $125,000).

In the year 2000, Transport Canada prosecuted 19 vessels in Atlantic Canada, and obtained from the courts a total of $196,500 in fines – an average of $10,342.11. Only four were the result of aerial surveillance off the coast.

Between 1994 and 2002 fines meted out by the courts for polluting in Newfoundland and Labrador waters since 1994 have totaled a mere $450,000.

MV Flare

Yet the Canadian Coast Guard alone spent $1 million of tax dollars to clean up oil spilled by the breakup of the MV Flare, a 180-metre dry-bulk carrier flagged in Cyprus, with a multinational crew of twenty-five. It was crossing the Atlantic from Rotterdam to Montreal.

“The voyage was extremely rough,” writes William Langewiesche, “with waves exceeding fifty feet. For two weeks the Flare slammed and whipped, flexing so wildly that, according to one survivor, the deck cranes appeared at times to be touching.” It split in half as it was approaching the Canadian coast on 16 January 1998. The ship’s stern section, which contained the crew’s quarters, sank in the cold, pre-dawn darkness within thirty minutes. Only four of the crew survived, by clinging to an icy, capsized lifeboat for six hours. [2]

Further cause for alarm: Maurice Landry, regional director of communications, Atlantic region, for Transport Canada in Moncton, who cites these fines, claims that “that Canadian courts are already imposing some of the highest fines in the world per litre spilled.” [3]

According to documents obtained through Access to Information, fines paid for illegally dumping oil is even tax deductible!

The fines collected are turned over to a virtual chemical disaster industry, in this case, Eastern Canada Response Corp. Ltd., a private company that is funded by the polluters.

According to Stan Tobin, president of the regional advisory council to Canada Coast Guard on oil spill prevention and response in Newfoundland, only 10 per cent of current response-system resources are used to prevent a spill or to get to one in a timely manner. The other 90 per cent is dedicated to the containment and cleanup of spills, which have already occurred. He told the Telegram last year that the response system for oil slicks in place 12 years ago was better than methods now used in the province.

“It’s a pity the Canadian government rubber-stamped mechanical cleanup and containment.”

Deliberate degradation of the marine environment

MV Tecum Sea. After being charged, it was immediately released on a $500,000 security bond.

In September 2002, the federal Canadian Wildlife Service charged the Panamanian-registered, Greek-owned ship MV Tecum Sea with illegal dumping petroleum into a sensitive ocean area after a massive oil slick was discovered just a few hundred kilometres southwest of the Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve. The spill was one of the biggest ever off the coast of the province. It was feared the spill would harm thousands of murres, kittiwakes, gannets and other birds that inhabit the Reserve.

Just a few barrels of oil can cause great damage when released into areas with a high bird or mammal population. The birds die with even a small amount of oil because it destroys their ability to retain warmth. Unless it is removed immediately, they die of hypothermia. But even if the oil is removed with soaps, the birds are often left infertile. Experts say most oiled bird corpses do not make it to shore. If they do, many are scavenged or decay before they are found. The cumulative effect of many smaller spills is having an impact, annually killing more than 100,000 marine birds in Atlantic Canadian waters alone, with some estimates reaching 300,000 seabirds – the same number of birds that died in the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Who’s on first?

According to a report from the Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund, a federal agency that controls a huge pot of money that is supposed to pay for cleanups, oil spills are currently at a record high. Media reports are quick to point to foreign shipping and the use of “flags of convenience,” a chauvinist outlook reflected in the blame game targeting Paul Martin and his ownership of Canada Shipping Lines, none of whose ships are registered in Canada, all being registered under different “flags of convenience,” as are those of the Irving-owned Kent Line.

Yet Canadian ships account for two-thirds of the spills and oil slicks, and foreign ships account for the remaining one third.

Sensational media coverage of major oil spills often creates the impression that tankers are the primary source of marine environmental pollution.

However, tanker spills account for less than five per cent of oil entering the sea, but reliable breakdowns by coastal region is information that is closely held by government agencies for unjustifiable reasons. According to the Newfoundland tanker industry, 19 per cent comes from other ship types, 50 per cent is the run-off of fuel and lubricating oil from land-based sources, 13 per cent comes from the atmosphere, and 11 per cent seeps naturally from the ocean bottom. Others account for the remaining two per cent. Of the five per cent attributed to tankers, the majority are small spills associated — for example — with taking fuel. Nevertheless, the environmental degradation of the ocean and marine environment has deepened.

Sovereignty and surveillance of whom, for whom?

SINCE THE END of the Cold War, Canada has justified expanding its military-naval surveillance capability in the name of upholding “conservation” and defending sovereignty from oil polluters as much as from the legalized plunder of foreign fishing fleets within the 200-mile zone.

The government deployed AWACS long distance surveillance planes purchased from the United States; the ill-fated Sea King helicopters; the Iroquois class destroyers, etc. All were acquired with the justification of high ideals.

Nevertheless, operational cost items included in the annual budget of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were actually used for military purposes, for instance, as part of the Cold War and anti-submarine surveillance on behalf of the United States and NATO bloc. Through this maneouvre, Canada’s annual military expenditures were much higher than that presented to the parliament and the Canadian public in DND estimates, due to the para-military sections of the DFO budget.

With the emergence of the unipolar world led by the United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Canadian Forces became part of its new arrangements, especially in the Middle East. The U.S. Empire no longer required Cold War surveillance of the North Atlantic nor even the new Halifax-class frigates then being built at Irving’s saint John Shipyard.

The military instruments allegedly required for “surveillance” and “conservation” were continuously redeployed by the Canadian government to protect multinational oil tankers in the “vital oil shipping routes” from the oil-rich Arabian peninsula through the Persian Gulf. Beginning in the first Gulf War in 1991 these naval deployments carried throughout the entire decade of the 1990s to the Anglo-American invasion of Afghanistan – Canadian Forces Operation Apollo, announced October 8, 2001, included two Aurora maritime patrol aircraft, through October 2003 – and the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Enduring Freedom) to date.

In short, Canada actively participated in a war of aggression in violation of international law while selling out its own resources and territory at home. In the name of high ideals of defence of the “free world,” Canada abnegated the defence of its own coastline and coastal communities. The rhetoric of the government also began to shift from “defence of Canada” as the raison d’etre of the Canadian Forces to “defence of North America,” i.e. Fortress America and the annexed Canada. No doubt shipments of the stolen Iraqi oil will also soon be arriving at the East Coast refineries for processing.

The case of the MV Tecum Sea

Oiled birds from Tecum Sea

The MV Tecum Sea incident further illustrates the duplicity of this rhetoric of conservation and the growing gap between the stand of the government and those of the people.

After being charged, the MV Tecum Sea was immediately released on a $500,000 security bond. By January 2003 over 3,000 Newfoundlanders had quickly signed a petition demanding that it be prosecuted.

“We don’t like birds washing up on our shores, destroyed by these criminals who are discharging oily bilges into our seas,” said Bob O’Brien of the Ocean Net group. “The fines are so low they’re not a deterrent. It’s a criminal act and they’re getting away with it. We demand that government do something about the pollution in our seas,” he said.

The seeming insistence of federal authorities for hard photographic evidence that graphically connects a ship to its spill is quite hollow. In the case of the MV Tecum Sea, a Radarsat satellite, hundreds of miles above the earth, captured the MV Tecum Sea literally in the act of discharging a 160-kilometre oil slick and 200 metres wide. Eight charges were laid based on four different federal acts against the ship’s owner (Elmira Shipping and Trading of Athens), operator, captain, and chief engineer. Yet the Canadian Coast Guard, the Department of Justice and the Department of Transport disagreed over the prospects of obtaining a conviction.

The case languished for a year. The federal government recently stayed the proceedings, effectively dropping the charges. Elmira Shipping and Trading went free as a bird. Federal complicity with monopoly right is tantamount to “an invitation to pollute in Canadian waters,” says Bill Montevecchi, biologist and Canadian Nature Federation board member from St. John’s.

While the Prestige disaster became an international cause celebre, there was virtually no media reporting of the MV Tecum Sea outside Newfoundland until the charges were stayed. [4]

In the cases of the Prestige, Braer, Flare and the Arrow (which sank in the Canso Straits), the authorities always blamed the weather conditions for the spills. For their part, fishermen point out that most of the deliberate dumping is now taking place in rough weather when the surveillance planes are grounded, and further and further out at sea.

They would know.

Thirty years of skinning the ox twice

Illustrating just whose interests are being “conserved” and how is the tale of the Irving Whale.

This oil tanker, owned by the powerful Irving family in New Brunswick, sank in 1970 in the Gulf of St Lawrence near a prime commercial fishing area off Prince Edward island.

Fishermen from various parts of the Gulf such as Magdalen Islands and PEI vigorously protested as the tanker was left to sit on the bottom for 26 years.

It was only raised – at a cost of $42-million to the Canadian public – after compelling evidence that it had been leaking PCBs could no longer be denied. The government wants J.D. Irving Ltd. to pay, as the owner of the barge, while the monopoly wants the Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund to pay the bill. While this dispute dragged on in Federal Court, the Irvings refitted the Irving Whale under a new name in 1997 and has resumed using it since 1998 as a coastal oil tanker delivering Bunker C fuel from the company’s refinery in Saint John to various locations around the Atlantic provinces.

The hydra-headed Irving monopoly was able to write off the Irving Whale as a loss, make the Canadian people pay for its recovery, and relaunch the recovered tanker as a profit-making proposition, giving new meaning to the concept of skinning the ox twice.

The persistent stand of the Spanish people of Galicia against official blackmail, pressure and deception commands the closest attention of all those who fight for justice and against the exploitation and degradation of the fisheries and the marine environment. The danger from escalating oil spills, far from being a matter merely of “lax environmental and shipping laws”, remains a question of the nation and who decides. The wrecking and destruction of the maritime environment must be turned around. The oil monopolies and their international shipping clients must be strictly controlled. They must pay the Canadian people and society for the right to traffic the sea-lanes and marine resources of Canadians.

Oil monopolies must turn over to the public treasury a portion of their surplus production in the form of product or a money equivalent. The amount should be a per centage of their surplus product and should not be based on what they declare as profit or revenue. The surplus product is the amount of production above the cost of production, after deducting for wages and constant costs such as depreciation of machines and buildings and consumed raw materials. Cost of production does not include servicing of company debt, rent or mortgage payments as that is part of the division of profit after paying the public treasury for the right to exploit Canadians and their resources.

Such problems posed by nation-building do have solutions. Let’s turn around this nation wrecking and join together in nation building.


1        “Tankers and the sea,” Telegram, St. John’s, 20 November 2002

2       William Langewiesche, “Anarchy at Sea,” The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; The Shipbreakers – 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 31-49

3         “Transport Canada fights to safeguard waters,” Telegram, May 13, 2001

4       “The Tecum Sea: A Special Investigation,” Mark Blackburn, CBC and Country Canada,

Our series

REFLECTIONS ON ‘EL PRESTIGE’ OIL DISASTER: (Part 1) Two years on, the killer spill continues

REFLECTIONS ON THE PRESTIGE OIL DISASTER: (Part 2) The marine environment and sovereignty – lessons for Canada

REFLECTIONS ON THE PRESTIGE OIL DISASTER: (Part 3) ‘Don’t make me fish off Cape St. Mary’s’


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