This is part one of a two-part series on freighter anchorages off of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
The number of freighters anchoring off of Vancouver Island awaiting entry to the Port of Vancouver is increasing faster than the volume of freight going through the port, according to the federal transportation department.
Using data from Information System on Marine Navigation, in 2011 there were 140 dry bulk and liquid bulk vessels anchored in the Southern Gulf Islands. In 2022, there were 457 bulk vessels recorded as anchored, according to Sau Sau Liu, a spokesperson for Transport Canada.
Meanwhile, trade through the Port of Vancouver has grown by around 18 per cent in the decade from 2012 (123.9 million metric tonnes) to 2021 (146.4 million metric tonnes).
Ships are also staying at anchorages longer. Freighters spent an average of 10 to 12 days at anchor in 2021. Since 2011, the average time a freighter spends anchored around the southern Gulf Island has increased by about 3.6 per cent per year, according to Alex Munro, spokesperson for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.
“Anchoring is a common law right of navigation and a part of safe navigation,” Munro wrote in an email. “A ship is generally free to anchor temporarily and for a reasonable period of time in any location deemed safe and appropriate. Vessel masters are responsible for making these decisions, in conjunction with the port authorities and others (e.g., marine pilots), depending on a range of factors, including the quality of anchor-holding ground, shelter from high winds.”
There are 33 commercial vessel anchorages located throughout the southern Gulf Islands.
While the port says it’s trying to balance growth with environmental concerns and the concerns of locals, a number of people feel they’re getting that balance wrong.
“We are allowing these waters to be used as essentially what I call an ‘overflow industrial parking lot’ for the Port of Vancouver. So I think the bill was introduced because I got extremely frustrated with a total lack of progress,” said Alistair MacGregor, Member of Parliament for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, who introduced a private member’s bill in November to ban the use of freighter anchorages in an area stretching from the northern tip of the Gulf Islands to the northern tip of the Saanich Peninsula.
Grain and coal up, fuelling capacity challenges down the line
Liu said there are a number of causes that mean anchorages go up.
“The use of coastal anchorages has increased over the past decade because of multiple factors, such as increased trade, supply-chain coordination challenges, as well as operational impacts such as labour issues, poor weather and other disruptions to port and transportation system activities.”
In 2021, the Port of Vancouver saw record-breaking container and foreign bulk volumes, according to a statement from the port authority. In the eight years before that, the port had also seen record grain volumes (grain comprises a quarter of the total bulk freight that goes through the port) but dipped by 13 per cent in 2021 due to summer drought.
While grain declined, coal had a good 2021.
In 2021 (the most recent year numbers are available) coal volumes increased 19 per cent compared with 2020 (volumes had markedly dropped from 36,908,514 metric tons in 2019 to 31,550,623 mt in 2020 – although growth was still over two per cent when comparing 2019 to 2021.)
Domestic coal was up. Province-wide coal and natural gas account for 73 per cent of the year-over-year increase in B.C. export values, according to a BC Statistics report from November 2022.
Supply chain slowdowns in the U.S. have also seen more coal go through Canadian ports. California and Washington have both voted down a number of coal-processing projects in recent years. Richmond, a major port in California, voted to ban coal in 2020. That meant coal mines in the midwestern states had to find a way to get their coal to markets where demand is high, like China and India.
Vancouver Fraser Port Authority also manages the waters that house the Westshore Terminal in Delta, a port that styles itself as “the terminal of choice for Canadian coal mines and for United States mines in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming” on its website, shipping 33 million tonnes of coal a year.
In total, 146 million metric tonnes of cargo in 2021 went through the Port of Vancouver, up one per cent from the previous year. Coal made up 37.69 million metric tonnes of that.
“There has been some additional demand for anchorages in recent months in part due to coal supply chain disruptions as well as record exports of Canadian grain moving through the port,” said Munro. “Overall, coal and grain terminals at the Port of Vancouver are operating within capacity and not impacting port fluidity.”
However, this might not last.
The port authority forecasted west coast terminals are expected to run out of capacity by the mid-to late-2020s in a March 2022 report attached to its 2021 freight totals. To meet demand, the port authority has been working on the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project in Delta, a container processing port that would add 2.4 million twenty-foot equivalent units of container capacity per year. The application is currently being reviewed by the federal government.
“This project would be foundational to Canada’s trade future, but if we don’t act, it’s ours to lose and those impacts will be felt from the west coast to the Prairies to Ontario and beyond, for many years to come,” said Robin Silvester, president of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, in a statement.
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