A massive oil-loaded barge stranded near Bella Bella B.C., after it was hit by heavy seas, is now safe and under tow, says a captain in charge of the rescue.

The incident, just a year after the Nathan E. Stewart fuel spill, has local First Nations renewing calls for a greater say in marine disaster response.

The Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria (JRCC) says the Zidell Marine 277 broke free from its tug, the Jake Shearer, around 3:45 p.m. PT Sunday.

The captain in charge of the retrieval operation said heavy seas caused the massive barge to become disconnected from the tug that was pushing it. Large waves hit the port side of the vessel, decoupling the pins that connect the barge to the tug.

He said the stormy conditions made it impossible to reconnect it to the tug, so a commercial seagoing vessel was called.

"This was not a stranding. This was a decoupling of a barge. We now consider everything to be safe," said Captain Rich Softye.

The vice president of Harley Marine spoke from the company's command centre in Seattle.

He said, given his experience, which includes overseeing the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill response in In Prince William Sound, this was a tame operation.

Location of U.S. fuel barge stranded near Bella Bella B.C.

The approximate location of the U.S. fuel barge that became stranded in B.C. waters as it neared Bella Bella on Sunday Nov. 26. 2017. (Google Maps)

"We took a couple of huge waves from the port side which is irregular," Softye said. But hooking the barge back up and towing it north was no problem, he added.

The barge was anchored overnight in about 60 metres of water and had to wait about eight hours for the Gulf Cajun, a commercial tug. 

He said they will keep towing until Canadian authorities agree that it's a safe spot with a mud bottom to drop anchor, then another tug will tow the massive vessel south again.

Barge incident raises fears

But one First Nation leader said the incident shows little has been learned since the Nathan E. Stewart spilled 110-thousand litres of diesel oil into Gale Passage.

"The Central Coast, as it stands right now and still exists to this day, is not equipped to deal with any marine response incidents. So, right now we are still waiting on contracted vessels to come in. It's been a long night," Heiltsuk First Nation Chief Marilyn Slett said Monday morning.

The Bella Bella B.C., leader said she felt shaken when she first learned an oil laden barge was stranded in the ecologically-sensitive area.

"Geez. My heart sank. My community members are very distressed, very upset, very worried," she told CBC on The Early Edition.

Less than two weeks ago — on Nov. 15 — her First Nation released a report pushing for more involvement in disaster response.

"We know our waters," she said.

Nathan E. Stewart

More than a month after it sank, the Nathan E Stewart was lifted off the ocean floor onto a salvage barge. The incident sparked reviews of ocean disaster response on the Central Coast. (Zoe Hopkins)

The plan outlined how to strengthen oil spill prevention and facilitate clean up on the Central Coast.

Slett says the area is rich in salmon, seaweed, clams and sea otters. It's also along the whale migration route.

The B.C. Green Party has long expressed concerns about increased tanker traffic.

Sonia Furstenau, the party's environment critic, said this incident raises concerns about disaster response, especially with plans to increase coastal tanker traffic.

"We don't have a first class response at this point."

For now, the vessel's owners say it's out of any danger.

Portland Oregon's Zidell Marine, owned by the Zidell family, built and owns the eight-metre-high barge, first launched in June 2017.

It is chartered long-term to Olympic Tug and Barge out of Seattle.