Dredging delays raise risk of fuel spills, boats running aground in historic B.C. channel

·4 min read
Steveston is home to one of the the largest fishing ports in Canada, where people have fished the Pacific for generations. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Steveston is home to one of the the largest fishing ports in Canada, where people have fished the Pacific for generations. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Two weeks ago, commercial fisherman Cpt. Albert Melnychuk was pulling into the Steveston Harbour with a loaded boat when the bottom started dragging against the channel floor.

Moving against the current, he kept on the throttle, and slowly inched his way to the dock while fearing for the safety of his crew, he said. His experience and composure kept him from running aground or capsizing.

"I had to drag bottom all the way to Number 2 road," he said, which is near the end of the harbour.

"You get very concerned. You've got a crew of seven people, you're worried about the boat and all the equipment. It's very tense."

The Steveston Harbour Authority (SHA) says the channel is dangerously shallow and in need of dredging. Sediment build-up beneath the surface means mean many boats can only enter the harbour at high tide and have increased the risk of boats running aground and spilling fuel.

Jon Hernandez/CBC
Jon Hernandez/CBC

"The current dredging situation is dire," said Jaime Gusto, SHA general manager.

"Our largest vessel that access the harbour, the Frosty, holds 128,000 litres of fuel. Can you imagine what that would mean for our marine life if they ran aground?"

The non-profit authority is lobbying the provincial government, Ottawa, the City of Richmond and the Port of Vancouver — all of which are agencies the SHA says have some form of jurisdiction over the harbour and surrounding community — for a cost-sharing agreement.

"Unfortunately, nobody wants to take responsibility," she said.

'Worst I've ever seen it'

Melnychuk has manned fishing boats coming in and out of the harbour since 1973, and he says the channel is the worst it's ever been.

The mouth of the channel hasn't been dredged in upwards of a decade, and he says the floor filled up with a large amount of sediment during last year's extreme rainfall event.

"This is the worst I've ever seen it," he said. "There used to be a little spot we could get in, but anymore. It's all filled in."

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Fishing for funding

Historically, maintenance and dredging responsibility of the local channel shifted from the federal government to commercial users and ports.

In 2009, the Port of Vancouver's Local Dredging Program helped finance dredging of the Steveston channel, alongside funding from the City of Richmond, the province and the SHA.

The entrance of the channel was last dredged in 2010.

In the years since, the port has dropped its dredging program, while costs have increased substantially, the SHA says. The authority estimates it would cost $5 million — a 79 per cent increase the SHA attributes to inflation, more stringent regulations, and permitting.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie says the city is willing to commit its fair share to the project while calling on other levels of government and stakeholders to contribute.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

"This has been a problem for decades," said Brodie. "The federal government and the port were responsible, but that idea went by the wayside."

City staff have been directed to determine what the costs will be.

But Brodie says the larger goal is to have a long-term dredging plan so the issue doesn't keep resurfacing.

"What may be more important in the long-run is that we develop a sustainable plan with funding so that we can have the regular channel dredging so it's not an ongoing problem year, after year, after year," he said.

In a statement, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it's "committed to undergo maintenance basin dredging at both Steveston Gulf and Paramount to ensure critical areas within the basin are dredged to a depth for safe navigation for vessels, and safe harbour operations."

Funding would come from the federally funded Small Craft Harbours program. It said it intends to work with the SHA on the project, but the authority says more funding will likely be needed.

Meanwhile, the Port Authority said "it does not generally carry out dredging activities outside of the main deep-sea channels" but is reviewing the SHA's request.

CBC News reached out the province on whether it would contribute funding, but did not receive comments by the time of publishing.

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