Oil tanker stops unexpectedly off Cape Breton, 8 crew members sick with COVID-19

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The STI San Telmo was not on course for Nova Scotia but had to anchor after sending one sick crew member onshore. (Adam McNamara - image credit)
The STI San Telmo was not on course for Nova Scotia but had to anchor after sending one sick crew member onshore. (Adam McNamara - image credit)

An oil tanker that's been anchored unexpectedly off Port Hawkesbury, N.S., since Sunday changed course to Cape Breton over concerns of possible COVID-19-related sickness on board the vessel.

The STI San Telmo, a 183-metre-long and 32-metre-wide oil tanker, was bound for Montreal when it stopped off Port Hawkesbury after medically transporting a crew member to shore over the weekend.

Karl Risser, Atlantic inspector for the International Transport Workers Federation, said Wednesday that the crew member has tested positive for COVID-19 and is staying in a hotel. The individual is being monitored daily by Public Health officials.

He said seven more crew members who are on board the ship have also tested positive for COVID-19.

"I think everything is being handled appropriately as far as my understanding and we're going to keep a close eye on things until the vessel moves out," said Risser, whose organization represents foreign seafarers in Canada.

Unclear how many crew members ship has

Risser said the rest of the crew is being tested and monitored.

"We want to follow all the public health recommendations and make sure these seafarers receive medical attention, because they've been keeping the supply chain going during this COVID crisis," he said.

It's unclear how many crew members the vessel has, but Risser said a ship of that size typically needs up to 22.

Cybelle Morin, a spokesperson for Transport Canada, said the department "is aware of potential cases of COVID-19 involving a foreign-flagged vessel."

"We are closely monitoring the situation and working with the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency, the shipping company and other federal, provincial, and local partners to ensure appropriate measures are taken to maintain marine safety and public health," Morin said via email.

The vessel is safely anchored, Morin said, and crew members who remain on board are following public health guidelines.

"It presents no risks to port personnel or marine safety. The vessel can leave its anchorage only when the Public Health Agency of Canada agrees," Morin said.

A challenging time for seafarers

SMK Tanker Agency, a transportation service based in Quebec and the vessel's local Canadian agent, declined comment.

The STI San Telmo sails out of the Marshall Islands, which is an associated state of the U.S. situated near the equator in the Pacific Ocean.

According to an online marine tracking tool, the STI San Telmo departed Antwerp, Belgium, on March 31.

Risser said the pandemic has been particularly hard on seaborne crew.

At one point, 400,000 seafarers were stuck on board ships, Risser said, making them "basically floating quarantines" for the people who supply 80 to 90 per cent of the goods sold in Canada.

The need to be diligent

"Unfortunately, it's like a double-edged sword for them. At first, there were no crew changes because of the border closures and stuff, so we had guys on board for long periods of time," he said.

"Now that we have crew changes, ships are tight working conditions so there could be outbreaks of COVID on board vessels, so we have to be very diligent about monitoring the situation on board those vessels."

Risser said since crew change restrictions were lifted, this is the second incident of COVID-19 infection involving a crew member of a foreign-flagged vessel in Atlantic Canada.

He said once all Canadians have been vaccinated, officials need to consider making vaccines available to international seafarers.

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