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Campaigners to stop Enbridge and super tankers make a pilgrimage to northern coastal ecosystems and communities being put at risk

September 14, 2011

At the end of the summer, West Coast and our allies in the campaign to achieve a legislative tanker ban on BC’s North Coast decided that it would be a great idea to meet to discuss strategy and next steps on the coastal waters of the Great Bear Rainforest.  In this way we could travel the proposed tanker route and see first-hand (some of us for the first time) the communities, coastline and culture that the proposed Enbridge project, and the resulting oil tanker traffic, would put at risk of disaster, and meet people whose livelihoods hang in the balance. So tents and sleeping bags and rubber boots were packed, the services of long johns and rain suits were retained, and off we went – 14 of us – for a 5 day sea journey starting at Kitamaat Village, the home of the Haisla people (near the town of Kitimat), and reaching almost all the way to the open ocean.

I spend a lot of time in the north as part of this work, providing assistance to communities all the way along the pipeline route and spending time working for the people who are threatened by the Enbridge project. For me, this was a really important trip because it was my first time to get out on the water past Kitamaat and visit the people and the areas of the coast that are on the front line of the proposed supertanker traffic, and whose culture and livelihood could be destroyed forever if the Enbridge project is approved. Meeting with the people who are affected by threats like this, and who want to have more legal control over the activities taking place in the land and water around them,  is such an important part of the work that we do.

We set out from Kitamaat  in two boats – the Suncrest, a re-purposed fishing vessel, and the Avoceta, a sailboat.

Route Map through the Douglas Channel

Map of our route. We started at the top in Kitamaat and wound up almost at the open ocean at the bottom, in Barnard Harbour on the massive Princess Royal Island.


Our boat, Suncrest

The Suncrest leaving Hartley Bay.

Hartley Bay

Our first day was a rainy 6 hour trip along the proposed tanker route on Douglas Channel to our first stop at Hartley Bay, the home of the Gitga’at First Nation. I’ve been lucky to visit Kitamaat several times – but this was my first trip to Hartley Bay. It’s on the mainland but it’s reachable only by sea or by floatplane. It is a beautiful community, where the houses are all connected by boardwalks.

Our delegation was welcomed to a meeting with several leaders and community members, and the Gitga’at representatives spoke of their resolve that Enbridge tankers will not be accepted in their waters and of the risks that they will face if oil tankers begin to travel the unpredictable waters in front of their community.

The Gitga’at rely on their sea resources to feed their people, and their culture and survival as a people depend on their ability to carry on their harvesting practices. That is part of the reason, I’m sure, that they and their neighbouring Coastal First Nations passed a ban on oil tankers coming through their waters, based in their own laws, in March 2010.


Hartley Bay

Hartley Bay, Gitga'at territory.


Hartley Bay

Hartley Bay. No roads or cars, just boardwalks.

Princess Royal Island

After spending a night in the marina in Hartley Bay, we set out for our second day, bound for Princess Royal Island. After several hours sailing, including racing alongside a group of about 6 Dall’s Porpoises (dolphin-like creatures that can swim at up to 55 km/h) which apparently enjoy darting speedily around the bow of boats, we arrived at our anchorage in Barnard Harbour on Princess Royal. Barnard Harbour directly faces one of Enbridge’s proposed tanker routes (3 routes are to be used, depending on destination and weather conditions).

There is no permanent human settlement there – it is just a bay that provides a safe anchorage. We stayed just around a point from the King Pacific Lodge, a key tourism operation that would be seriously compromised by tanker traffic. It is rated by Condé Nast Traveller Magazine as the #1 resort in Canada, and #11 in the world, and was honoured as North America’s leading green hotel by the World Travel Awards.  While I’ve spent two sentences telling you about that, we didn’t get within a kilometre of it – but the hotel has been vocal in its opposition to tankers and hosted the International League of Conservation Photographers expedition to the Great Bear Rainforest, which brought photographers from around the world to document the coastal environment that tankers could ruin (on a mission called the Great Bear RAVE). Instead, we slept in a cabin built onshore by the Gitga’at – which was basic but much more spacious than the bunks underneath the front deck of the Suncrest.


Barnard Harbour

Barnard Harbour.


Gil Island and surrounding waters

We stayed for two nights in the safety of Barnard Harbour. On the third day, we visited Cetacealab, not far away on Gil Island. This is where Hermann Meuter and a team of scientists use a sophisticated network of hydrophones (underwater microphones) to monitor whales in the areas around the proposed tanker route (listen to them at the bottom of this page). You can hear more about their work on this episode of David Suzuki’s On the Line show on CBC Radio One.

The scientists there are learning a great deal about the habits of the many whales that live in and transit these waters. Never mind an oil spill – the noise from the tankers alone will have a significant impact on the whale population because they rely on acoustics for communication (called “echolocation”), to find food, and to find their way. Tankers would be louder and more constant than the existing boat traffic through the area. We were lucky to meet and speak with some members of the Gitga’at Coastal Guardian Watchmen who came by during one of their patrols of their territory, whose job it is to safeguard the health of their territorial lands and waters.

The same day, we visited an impressive rookery (or colony) of sealions. There appeared to be hundreds of them all perched on a small outcropping of rock in the water, resting, fighting, swimming, and generally hanging around.


Cetacealab, photo taken by Jacob Scherr

Cetacealab. Photo by Jacob Scherr.


Sealions, photo by Jacob Scherr

Sealions on BC's coast. Photo by Jacob Scherr.


At night in Barnard Harbour, it was amazing to see the bioluminescence in the water. Splashing around on shore in our rubber boots created firework-like patterns of light in the water, as did the swimming around of salmon right at our feet (like in this video that was taken somewhere else). 

Whether at night or by day, it was remarkable just how teeming with life are the waters and shores of the Great Bear Rainforest. It was something that I already knew, but to see it first hand was another story. Salmon everywhere. Crabs everywhere. And more whales, we were told by one member of our crew who’s lived in the area for 20 years, than he has ever seen. Humpback whales were, at some points on our trip, leaping repeatedly out of the water as if in a circus. We saw whales throughout our trip – our boat would screech to a halt whenever someone hollered “WHALE!” so that we could all take a look. Of course, our boat took far less time and distance to “screech to a halt” than the more than 2 kilometres needed for a supertanker.


Breaching whale, photo by Jacob Scherr

Breaching humpback whale. Photo by Jacob Scherr.


Back to Kitamaat – Ground Zero

As we returned to Kitamaat days later, we could clearly see the site where Enbridge plans to put its oil port and tank farm, part of the way down the channel from Kitimat. The Haisla people, too, have banned Enbridge’s tankers, pipelines and infrastructure from their territories, and have said publicly that they will use all the legal tools they have at their disposal to make sure their decision is respected. We had the chance to meet with some of the Haisla people who are leading the fight against Enbridge – they are at ground zero for this project because they will have the pipelines, the oil port and the supertankers in their territories, and they have the most to lose.

When we got back into the town of Kitimat, we met up with a bunch of the local people working hard to fight against this project – the members of Douglas Channel Watch. They have been very active in raising public awareness about the project and it was great to see how far along the group has come. They initiated the group two years ago, inspired after a public information night in Kitimat held by Dogwood Initiative, the Pembina Institute, Headwaters Initiative and West Coast Environmental Law. Now they are fully involved and, despite the fact they are a group of citizens with few resources, are going to intervene directly into the federal government’s review panel hearings on Enbridge – the process that has been set up to review and decide on whether or not the pipeline is approved. From Kitimat to Burns Lake to Prince George to Fort St. James it’s been so exciting to see community groups sprouting up, dedicated to keeping the coast, rivers and communities of northern BC safe.

Many thanks to the owners of the Suncrest and theAvoceta who generously provided their vessels and their hospitality to us in support of our work. The trip included volunteers and staff with Douglas Channel Watch, Friends of Wild Salmon, T. Buck Suzuki Foundation, Dogwood Initiative, Pembina Institute, ForestEthics, Living Oceans Society, Sierra Club BC, Headwaters Initiative, the Natural Resources Defense Council and West Coast Environmental Law.

By Josh Paterson, Staff Counsel