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The English Bay oil spill: Unseen damage puts ecosystem at risk

On Thursday morning, when Bowen Belle water taxi pulled in to English Bay to drop commuters off at Granville Island, English Bay Launch owner and operator Mike Shannon says he didn’t see anything that indicated that there might be a problem in the wa

On Thursday morning, when Bowen Belle water taxi pulled in to English Bay to drop commuters off at Granville Island, English Bay Launch owner and operator Mike Shannon says he didn’t see anything that indicated that there might be a problem in the water.

“There were Coast Guard boats out, but they do drills fairly regularly, so I figured that was what was happening,” says Shannon. “I couldn’t actually see an oil slick at that point.”

For biologist Ramona DeGraaf, what the average person cannot see in spill-affected waters and beaches is of primary concern. DeGraaf, who was on Bowen conducting a shoreline survey in October, says that the embryo of forage fish that spawn on the shores of English Bay will suffocate and die if the gravelly beaches where they lay their eggs are contaminated with oil.

“When I talk about forage fish, I am talking about a very specific group of fish that run the marine food chain – herring, surf smelt, sand lance – without these, the whole Straight of Georgia ecosystem is at risk. A reduction in the biomass of these fish is going to have a major impact on all predators, and that includes killer whales,” says DeGraaf. “And English Bay is super-smelt land.”

She says that this time of year, there are surf smelt embryos in the beaches, larvae feeding in the water, and adults coming into Burrard Inlet and English Bay to spawn.

“Right now, and for however many years that oil is going to be caught in the sediment of those beaches, any embryo deposited is going to suffocate. Even micro-amounts of oil will cause the effect similar to covering your head in a plastic bag full of fumes.”

She adds that the shoreline of the Lower Mainland used to be prime spawning habitat for surf smelt and sand lance, but most of it has been destroyed by sea walls and marinas.

“Discovering a beach that is intact and suitable for spawning is so rare, it’s like finding dinosaur bones,” says DeGraaf. “But in my shoreline surveys I’ve found good spawning beaches around Dundarave Pier, John Lawson Creek, Totem Beach in Stanley Park and Rec Beach. I am just so glad that at least that there are good spawning grounds up on the Sunshine Coast and near Powell River that should be safe from damage.”

Starting this Friday, De Graaf is going to conduct an initial assessment of the impacts of any hydrocarbons at the beach at Sandy Cove in West Vancouver, which has been identified as an important smelt spawning site. From there, she says she will decide where to go in order to expand her study on the toxicity rates within smelt embryos on affected beaches.

“I am trying to be hopeful that I’ll find the level of contamination in the beach sediment to be low,” says DeGraaf. “But when you look at that oil sheen on the surface, and if we get some high winds come in, that will likely do the job of mixing it in with the sediment.”

Bowen Islander Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, shares DeGraaf’s concerns about the long-term and less visible impacts of this oil spill.

“This weekend, I went down to Seymour Bay and Arbutus Cove because I thought that if oil were to wash up anywhere on Bowen’s shoreline, it would likely be there,” says Wristen. “I didn’t see any evidence of oil, but as I watched the herons feeding, I thought about the impact a contaminated population of fish is likely to have on our local heron population.”

Wristen adds that recent research conducted for the Living Oceans Society by Dr. Jeffrey Short, a chemist who worked for the US government assessing damage to caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, shows that oil is deadly to virtually all fish while they are in their larval forms.

“Certain compounds in bitumen or bunker oil can dissolve into water and then be absorbed by the translucent embryos,” says Wristen. “When exposed to sunlight, these compounds promote the oxidization of tissues within the embryos – in effect, burning them. This effect was demonstrated in herring embryos on the shorelines of San Francisco Bay after the 2009 Cosco Busan oil spill.”

Wristen says that the wider impacts of the oil spill in English Bay may be difficult to monitor, but doing so is crucial.

“If we don’t start doing it immediately, we won’t have any hope of linking the cause and effect of this in the future,” she says.

The report Wristen sites when discussing fish embryos and oil was written for submission to the Kinder Morgan pipeline hearings, and focuses largely on oil spill response-preparedness.

“This event shows the risks, and that really, there is no intention on the part of the Coast Guard to address them,” says Wristen. “They’re saying that 80% of the spill has been picked up, when really, the International Tanker Owners Pollution Fund, which regularly publishes statistics, shows that only 15 percent of a spill is ever picked up. Furthermore, even in the sailor who first reported this spill says that he could see the oil sinking right away.”

She adds that the prospect of cleaning up oil from affected shorelines is grim.

“On the coastline up in Prince William Sound where the Exxon Valdez spilled, there is an estimated 80 thousand litres of oil remaining in the cobble beaches. There is no method proven to be particularly effective of getting oil off of rocks and out of fine sediment,” says Wristen. “You’ve likely heard descriptions of the oil on the shores of English Bay as being like bubblegum. It will take a long time for the elements to break this down and for those beaches to recover.”



4:10 p.m.  We left False Creek and headed out for a sail. Our initial course took us along the West End beaches out to Stanley Park.

4:45 p.m We were just off of 3rd beach when we noticed a strong smell like asphalt.  We saw a large slick on the water but could not tell if it was oil or whether it was just an area with less wind, so we turned the boat towards it.

5:05 p.m Just after 5 we reached the flat water and realized that it was an oil slick about ½ km long and 250 m wide.  The surface was covered with a blue sheen and just beneath the surface there were globules of oil by the thousands per sq. m.  They were within the top few inches of the water and I didn't notice them down any deeper.  Some were the size of a pea, many were the size of a fist.  We turned around to get out of the slick while I checked the web for the VPD Harbour Patrol phone number. The website said to phone 911 which I did exactly at 5:05.

911 put me through to the VPD.  I told them that we needed the VPD Marine Unit and that there was an oil slick 1/2 km long and 250 meters wide.  They said that they would pass it along to the Marine Unit and they tried to put me through to the Coast Guard with no success.  They took my cell # and the Coast Guard called me back three minutes later at 5:08 (note that the Coast Guard called from a 250 area code).  I was told that both the Coast Guard and the clean up crew were attending.  I told them that the slick was a ½ km long and that we were on the scene, but there were no emergency boats or other authorities there.  I was told that they were en route.

The Coast Guard also told me that they had already received a report from another boat about the spill.  There was another sailboat out there in the middle of the slick when we first noticed it.  Maybe it was them, but I haven't spoken to them.  There were very few other boats as it was a week day and still early in the boating season, but I have heard that Vancouver Ocean Sports were out there in kayaks and have oil all over their boats and paddles.

6:00 p.m The Port Authority showed up in a boat.  For the next two hours they hung around, generally motoring back and forth across the slick while it appears that oil continued to come from the ship as the slick grew. 

7:30 p.m The sun was getting low so we started to head in.  We When we passed by the stern of the offending freighter there were larger stickly globs of black goo a meter long and as thick as your arm.  Oil was everywhere at and below the surface.  The crew of the ship were madly trying to load 50 gallon drums from a small boat onto the ship while at the same time they were dropping small pails over the side of the ship and hauling up water.  It was a keystone cops kind of scene and the Port Metro boat passed by in close proximity but did not intervene.  I didn’t see them do anything else but motor around. 

8:00 p.m. When I was heading into the dock there was still no Coast Guard, no booms, and no other emergency response teams on site.
I did not witness any sinking oil, but we did not hang out in the slick very long so we wouldn't have seen them anyway.  Once we entered the slick and confirmed that it was in fact an oil spill we got out of the slick as soon as possible to minimize exposure to ourselves and to the sailboat.
To tell you the truth we thought that once the 911 and Coast Guard told us they were enroute that out job was done and we just stuck around to observe.  Given the lack of response for many hours it is obvious to me now that we should have screamed like hell, called every media outlet, and taken photos and video.  Our naive mistake!  World class response my arse!

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