The Royal Canadian Navy is looking at getting rid of its own tugboats to save money.
It has invited companies to submit their "business case" to provide tug services at HMC Dockyard in Halifax and CFB Esquimalt in British Columbia. The contract could last 25 years.
"The objective of the business case is to assess the operational and fiscal impacts of adopting alternate service delivery for tug services," said the request, which closes Jan. 25.
"The intent of this price and availability enquiry is to identify the availability and budgetary costs for the provision of tug and fire boat services within the commercial market."
The military wants to know what a company would charge to provide the berthing, coastal towing, harbour firefighting and other fleet support duties currently carried out by its own tugs.
Veteran harbour watcher Mac MacKay blogs about Canada's tugboat industry. He sees fewer people working on fewer boats.
"I think that's what is at the bottom of it. They want to save money and they want to cut down the costs of paying people," he said.
The request contemplates a reduction of vessels from seven to four, with two large tugs each in Halifax and Esquimalt.
Halifax is currently served by three main tugs and two smaller fire boats. Esquimalt has two tugs.
The navy did not respond to inquiries from CBC on Monday. Evan Koronekski of the Department of Defence in Ottawa said the military or the Department of Public Works may respond Tuesday.
MacKay said navy tugs currently use a crew of five on a shift basis. Civilian operators would likely use crews of three on a week-on, week-off basis.
"There would be a tremendous difference in the number of people working," he said.
No requirement for Canadian ships
The tug replacement business case deadline was extended twice this month. The navy has dealt with a number of questions from potential suppliers, including whether the tugs would have to be built in Canada.
The official answer is, no.
"There is no requirement for tugboats to be Canadian built," the document said.
That is not a surprise to MacKay, who said Canadian shipyards have been unable to compete internationally on price, although Group Ocean in Quebec City does build its own tugs.
"It's not out of the question they might be Canadian built, but it's unlikely," he said.
Jean Phillipe Brunet, executive vice president corporate and legal affairs with Group Ocean, said his company has built 10 tugs over the past decade and is pursuing this opportunity.
"We've shown our interest. There is Canadian expertise to build these vessels," he told CBC News.
MacKay said other potential suppliers include Irving-owned tugboat company Atlantic Towing Ltd. and Seaspan of Vancouver. Irving did not respond to CBC News inquiries.
The navy business case is for tugs no older than five years and with 4,000 horsepower. That is twice the power of the existing tugs, which were built in the 1970s but are nimble enough to handle the confined quarters of the HMC Dockyard jetties, according to Mackay.