Marine Atlantic on future plans, storm prep

By Jaymie White

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

PORT AUX BASQUES — On Saturday, Oct. 22, Marine Atlantic held a meeting for their Annual Review of Activities. Gary O’Brien, Chair of the Board of Directors at Marine Atlantic, Murray Hupman, President and CEO of Marine Atlantic, and Shawn Leaman, Vice president of Finance, presented the meeting.

The review offered highlights in safety, human resources, environment, equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility, while taking a specific look at innovation, serving customers, and financial overview.

In the past year, Marine Atlantic has seen its share of hardships with the pandemic, the washouts on the Southwest Coast in 2021, and most recently, Hurricane Fiona, but Darrell Mercer, Corporate Communications Manager, said they have been able to pivot to keep operations running smoothly.

“The washout on the Southwest Coast last fall was a very significant event because it cut off the Southwest Coast for a period of approximately a week. From our perspective, we had two different regions that we were serving. We had the Southwest Coast, which was isolated to itself, and we also had the rest of the island, which required the goods that were coming across every day through Port aux Basques and connecting into the Trans-Canada Highway,” explained Mercer. “So when we looked at our contingency plans, we activated the Argentia service again, but we did a triangle route. We went from North Sydney to Port aux Basques to Argentia and then back to North Sydney. What that allowed us to do was bring goods into the Port aux Basques area for the Southwest Coast residents that were cut off from the rest of the island, and then we could also ship the products to Argentia to the rest of the island. That was the first time we ever implemented the triangle route, and it worked well.”

Contingency plans were also put into place ahead of Fiona and they were also able to coordinate with the Town to offer some of their supplies to help in the aftermath.

“We put extra mooring lines on our vessels in addition to our automated mooring systems. We did our preparatory activities at the terminal to ensure our drainage systems were working well. Any loose objects were secured, and because of that we came through that storm with minimal damage,” explained Mercer. “When the storm passed through on Saturday morning through Port aux Basques, we were back in operation by lunchtime Sunday. So there was an impact to our schedule, but from an infrastructure perspective we fared very well, especially when you look at some of the areas of Port aux Basques that experienced that devastation with the storm surge.”

Mercer said the weather events are definitely having an impact on Marine Atlantic's service.

“We’re seeing the storms that are coming much more frequently now. They’re more severe storms, and that could be a winter storm or a fall hurricane, but we are starting to see these happen more and more often. When you look from a climate change perspective, we’re certainly experiencing more severe weather and that’s something we’re preparing for into the future.”

Despite the storms, Mercer said the past year has been positive.

“When we look at traffic from 2020 and 2021, there was a significant drop in comparison to pre-COVID periods, and that was basically due to the travel regulations that were in place. People didn’t want to travel because of the risk of COVID, so we had two very significantly tough years,” said Mercer. “When we started to move into the March time frame, when the travel restrictions started to lessen, we started to see more bookings on our service. Then the government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced the Come Home Year activities and we saw more bookings associated with that.”

Marine Atlantic saw a significant bump from 2019, a pre-COVID period.

“The analysis that we’re doing right now is, was that a blip simply because all of those factors came into place? We're coming out of COVID. We had a Come Home Year, and people had a pent-up demand for travel, or is that going to be a longer-term piece. As we look out into 2023, inflation is a piece that’s going to influence people’s travel choice. The price of fuel will influence people's decision on whether they want to travel,” said Mercer. “We’re keeping a close eye on that to see what that will translate into for travel, 2022 was a good year for our service when we look at the traffic numbers, and now it’s just a matter to see what that is going to translate to for next year.”

Numbers are still strong for fall 2022 bookings.

“Back in the spring we announced the 22 per cent discount and that was in association with the Come Home Year, but what we did was we also implemented it for the fall period. So travel during October was subject to a 22 per cent discount as well. What we’ve seen is a desire, again, for more people to travel for the fall season,” said Mercer. “The latest numbers that we have show about a five per cent increase over 2019 numbers, so it is still a fairly significant bump for the fall season.”

Also mentioned were the upcoming infrastructure plans for Marine Atlantic, which include the new Port aux Basques administration building and the new vessel, both which are planned to be completed by 2024.

“We are currently going through due diligence on contract award, so our hope is to have that in place in the not-too-distant future,” said Mercer. “We’re looking at the 2024-2025 time frame for the vessel. We actually got an update recently that the construction activities at the yard are going to begin on November 1. So next week we’ll start to see all the modules start to come together to form the ship. Obviously it’s going to be a long process as we move over the next 18 months or so, but this is a significant milestone as the ship is going to start to take shape.”

Marine Atlantic also has plans for improvements within the Port aux Basques Harbour.

“One of the pieces we have been working on over the last number of years is the potential removal of Vardy’s Island. From a safety perspective, the island sits in the middle of the harbour and our vessels have to navigate around that island. It becomes more of an issue when we are into periods of high winds, for example, so we’ve been looking at what the potential would be to remove that island,” explained Mercer. “We’ve had some initial consultations in the area with various groups to let them know what our plans are. We’re not in the position right now to move forward. We do own the island. We took ownership of that island in the last fiscal year, and we’re putting together plans now to present to the Government of Canada where we would hopefully get funding to remove the island, but before we’d go through any of that process we would have consultations in the local area, outline our plans, go through an environmental assessment. So it’s still a significant ways out before we’d be able to finalize that project.”

Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wreckhouse Weekly News