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As BC Ferries retires multiple ferries, conservationist raises concerns

Removing large vessels from the ocean is a “whole different world” in experience one expert says
The 62-year-old former BC Ferries vessel R.J. Breadner sank in Sechelt Inlet on Nov. 4.

BC Ferries is still looking for potential buyers for three ferries it retired last year and, as it announced last month that eight more of its vessels will be retiring within a decade, a B.C. conservationist is raising concerns about what happens to decommissioned ferries. 

The company’s announcement came just weeks after a former ferry, the R.J. Breadner, sank in Sechelt Inlet. For years, that vessel has been privately owned. It has not been registered since 2015. When news of the sinking in Sechelt Inlet broke in November, it caught the attention of some readers interested in a potential new dive spot. For others — including conservationist John Buchanan — it was another large vessel at the bottom of the ocean to add to his personal list. 

Based in Squamish, Buchanan keeps track of the fate of decommissioned ferries, starting from when they are listed for sale. “As soon as I see one that goes for sale… I put my egg timer on because it’s just a matter of time before that hits the bottom of the ocean,” Buchanan said. His list includes the former Albion ferry T'Lagunna that sank in Howe Sound and was raised at Darrell Bay in 2011, and other former ferries now working in Howe Sound or docked in Mission. He notes the “astronomical” expense of drydocking a large vessel for maintenance — if that work is not done, he said it will corrode over time. 

It’s not just ferries that Buchanan is concerned about, but vessels that large corporations, government or private agencies need to get rid of when they no longer serve their purpose. For Buchanan, that includes Canadian Navy and Coast Guard vessels.

How many vessels lie at the bottom of the Sechelt Inlet — or Howe Sound or the Strait of Georgia — is anyone’s guess. When asked how many sunken vessels have been reported in the Sechelt Inlet and how many since removed, the Canadian Coast Guard told Coast Reporter it doesn’t keep records by inlet/waterway.

Last year, BC Ferries retired the 58-year-old Bowen Queen, Powell River Queen and Mayne Queen. They have been listed for sale “to make room for a new generation of clean, quiet and environmentally friendly ships,” BC Ferries said in a statement to Coast Reporter. The expression of interest period was set to close for those ferries on Dec. 13, but on Dec. 18 BC Ferries confirmed the expression of interest period has been extended so potential interested parties have more time to submit proposals.

Six major ferries — two of which serve the lower Sunshine Coast’s Route 3 — are slated to retire between 2029 and 2032. BC Ferries has been approved to purchase four new hybrid electric vessels for minor routes. The new ships are expected to arrive by 2027, at which point the current vessels serving these routes will be redeployed and two relief vessels will be retired. 

According to BC Ferries, the operational lifespan of their ferries is generally 40 to 50 years. A statement from media spokesperson Deborah Marshall said, “Decommissioning old vessels is an essential part of moving to a cleaner and more modern ferry system.” BC Ferries’ preference is to sell vessels for ongoing trade, the statement continued, and expressions of interest from reputable ship recycling yards to recycle the ships will also be taken if there are no ongoing trade sales.

“We do not support or condone ship recycling practices that do not respect the environment and employ modern techniques to safely and cleanly recycle all materials,” BC Ferries’ statement said. 

“It would be nice if a corporation like BC Ferries, when they had a ferry constructed, had an exit plan. So that would be built in as soon as it reaches its lifespan, it would then get scrapped and recycled in an environmentally friendly way,” Buchanan said. “They’ll argue back at you and they’ll say it’s still a useful vessel for someone else. But that’s just a golden opportunity for them to wash their hands of it.” 

Buchanan acknowledged that there’s a lot of value in reselling scrap and equipment that is still on board large vessels. While he says it’s not a perfect solution, Buchanan suggests the cost of scrapping and recycling a vessel should be built into the purchase price as a sort of exit plan, similar to how drivers pay a recycling fee for tires. “Same thing with ferries,” he said. “You pay a recycling fee for your ferry when you buy it.”

John R. Roe of the Dead Boats Disposal Society is often called in to help extricate sunken vessels, and the society has removed more than 250 to date. Roe has been to Sechelt several times, and plans to do a survey of Sechelt Inlet in the new year to gather data on sunken vessels in the area. He’s pushing for funding to do such assessments so he can provide information to governments to make informed decisions and protect critical habitat. “They don’t know what’s there, we don’t know what’s there — nobody does. It’s a mystery world in our intertidal areas.” 

When it comes to sunken vessels, he says the problem is a lack of resources. Vessels that sink and are leaking oil will see a quick response, but the size of the vessel poses another problem. When asked about what the process to remove a sunken boat involves, Roe said, “The size of a vessel like that [R.J. Breadner] is a whole different world in expense. There’s very few people that are experienced doing that on our coast.” Those who do have such experience are often working on other projects. Although vessel owners are ultimately the responsible party, Roe notes that federal legislation has only fined the owners of abandoned or shipwrecked vessels twice since it came into effect in 2019. Once the vessel is no longer determined to be leaking oil, the Coast Guard will pass it over to Transport Canada. If Transport Canada determines the vessel needs to be removed, it can apply to the Crown for funding, Roe said, adding that it could take up to five years to get money from the federal government to remove sunken ships. That’s when a contractor or an organization like the Dead Boats Disposal Society comes in.

“Oil is one part of the issue,” Roe told Coast Reporter. “The heavy metals and paints, all that stuff that’s in there and everything else, that’s the real issue. We know what’s in the metals is not good for our fisheries, it’s not good for shellfish, not good for our birds, it’s not good for you and I where it ends up.”  

Roe wants to see the federal and provincial governments require boats to be registered and insured, and require owners pay for the damage. Roe said beaches and oceans need to be cleaned up, but there also needs to be focus on preventing damaging materials, from a dead boat to plastic bags and urban runoff, from entering the waterways in the first place. 

As Buchanan keeps an eye on news of sunken vessels in B.C. waters, he said, “As time goes on, it gets forgotten, but that legacy of pollution is still sitting there.” So, he files away the information for when another boat sinks, when people may think it’s just a one-off ferry that sank. “Well, actually, that’s not the case.” 

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