More than 60 shipping vessels stalled off B.C. coast due to rail blockades

At least 66 shipping vessels are stalled in British Columbia's waters, according to the maritime shipping industry, as rail blockades continue in support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs' opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern B.C.

Robert Lewis-Manning, president of the Chamber of Shipping of B.C., says Canadians will eventually notice consequences from the backlog.

"It will hit in the pocket book, it will hit in necessary supplies for key industries and it will take a long time to recover," he said.

The vessels move commodities like consumer goods, food and raw materials between Canada and international destinations.

The Chamber of Shipping, along with the B.C. Maritime Employers Association and the B.C. Marine Terminal Operators Association, issued a joint statement Friday calling on the province and federal government to de-escalate tensions and remove blockades.

The organizations say the blockades are creating unsafe work environments for their members and impeding the movement of goods.

Lewis-Manning says there are 48 vessels anchored in Vancouver and 18 in Prince Rupert waiting to get into those ports to either unload or pick up goods.

"Those line-ups are only going to increase, of course ships are continuing to arrive," he said. "Eventually there will be no space and they'll be waiting off the coast of Canada, which is a situation we'd like to avoid."

A rail blockade near Belleville, Ont., continued into its ninth day on Friday, which has resulted in CN and Via Rail stoppages.

After four days, a similar blockade near Hazelton, B.C., ended after the federal and provincial governments agreed to set up a meeting between high level officials and hereditary chiefs.

Lewis-Manning applauded both sides for their efforts in finding a way to end the blockade that halted transport between Prince George and Prince Rupert.

"There's some positive signs," he said. "Obviously there is a lot of hard work that goes behind something like that."

Still, there is concern that other blockades could spring up.

'Everyday costs'

Rick Kantz, a farmer in Fort St. John and president of the B.C. Grain Producers Association, which has 300 members, says he and other farmers trying to move crops like wheat, canola and barley have been slowed by rail cars not showing up due to delays.

He says the slowdown will result in farmers missing shipping dates, losing sales and having to store grain on farms.

"It's going to start affecting us relatively soon," he said. "A day or two a person can live with. Everyday costs, you sure don't want to extend much beyond that."

Farmers like Kantz, along with those in the maritime shipping industry, have already been affected by a trade slowdown due to the coronavirus and a ministerial order from the federal government requiring trains carrying a significant amount of dangerous goods on federal lines to slow down.

That order from Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau came on Feb. 6 after a CP crude oil train derailment in Saskatchewan.

On Thursday, CN Rail announced a shutdown of its operations in Eastern Canada due to the blockades. It says it transports more than $250 billion worth of goods annually.

The CN shutdown in turn caused Via Rail to cancel most of its passenger services. The company says it transported five million passengers across Canada in 2019.

Meanwhile, a blockade of trains on Canadian Pacific Railway tracks in Port Coquitlam, B.C., resulted in a difficult commute for people in Metro Vancouver Thursday evening and Friday morning before trains were able to resume Friday afternoon.