Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield has defended the closure of the Kitsilano coast guard base in Vancouver, saying it is a fiscally sound decision that won’t compromise safety, but critics aren’t buying it.

Ashfield was officially in Vancouver Tuesday to honour Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue and give the volunteer organization $100,000.

"These volunteers are often the first to respond in an emergency situation and are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," said Ashfield.

The minister said they are one of the groups that will help make up for the absence of the Kitsilano coast guard base when its closed.

Closing the facility was "operationally sound and fiscally responsible," Ashfield said.

'Irresponsible decision'

But B.C. New Democrat MP Peter Julian said the opposite is true.

"It is putting lives in jeopardy. It is an irresponsible decision," Julian said.

Other critic have argued that if there were a boating accident in Vancouver’s English Bay, the nearest coast guard vessel would be the hovercraft at Sea Island in Richmond, which could take as long as 30 minutes to get to the scene.

"A 10-minute difference, 20 minutes, half-an-hour difference in most cases. It’s going to mean lives," said Mike Cotter, of the Jericho Sailing Centre.

The minister has suggested there is a network of others who could help out in a rescue, including volunteers in Marine Search and Rescue, those in a summer student rescue program, and even the many pleasure boaters out on the water.

It's a strategy the Coast guard union says gambles with safety.

"It's the same as your neighbour coming out of your house on fire with a garden hose.  It's very nice but I want the fire department to come," said Dave Clark, of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees

The minister said that critics are worried about change, but insisted safety was his top priority.

"Certainly I would never make a decision that I thought would jeopardize in any way, shape or form the lives of mariners."

 

With files from the CBC's Tim Weekes