British Columbia

Freighter frustration grows for Southern Gulf Island residents

Port of Vancouver says the overflow spots are busier than usual because of the rail blockades, but island residents say they are increasingly being used as a permanent extension of port facilities.

Groups say temporary overflow anchorages for the massive vessels are constantly full

Suzanne Walters says she's had to live with constant noise and pollution from freighters off Gabriola Island since moving there two years ago. (Kendall Hanson/CHEK News)

Some residents of the Southern Gulf Islands are becoming increasingly frustrated at the number of freighters anchored off their shores.

Gabriola Island resident Suzanne Walters said the problem has existed since she moved to the island from Vancouver two years ago.

"I can't be outside because this freighter noise is constant," she said.

"This one anchorage is so close to the shore here that the ... generator that is on for weeks at a time is torturous and stressful and annoying."

As of Tuesday morning, 30 of 33 designated "overflow" anchorages around the Southern Gulf Islands were occupied.

The sites are under the authority of Transport Canada but managed by the Port of Vancouver, which has 60 of its own anchorage sites.

Port of Vancouver Harbour Master Cpt. Shri Madiwal said rail and port blockades across the country have increased port congestion because ships are being forced to wait longer than expected for their cargo. 

This map from Marinetraffic.com shows freighters (green dots) anchored Tuesday off the Southern Gulf Islands, awaiting entrance to the Port of Vancouver. (marinetraffic.com)

"The situation has definitely been unusual with the recent disruption in rail operations and the protest activity and we are seeing there's a lot of demand on the anchorages," said Madiwal.

But Chris Straw, a member of South Coast Ship Watch Alliance, says the Port of Vancouver has essentially been using the Gulf Island anchorages as an extension of its operations for some time, pointing out that before the rail blockades sprung up, 24 of the 33 overflow spots were already occupied.

"The 33 areas were basically designated as safe places for ships to anchor. Our contention is that they were never intended as an ongoing and permanent facility for the port, but that's what's happening increasingly," said Straw.

Straw believes the main problem is with coal and grain shippers who have been taking advantage of the situation by allowing an increasing number of ships to arrive early and then park off the Southern Gulf Islands for free. 

His group questions why there can't be better management of shipping traffic heading into Vancouver, including asking ships to slow down so they don't arrive weeks before they can load.

A container ship travels through the shipping lanes between Canada and the United States in this file photo, shot from the Gulf Islands. (Shutterstock / NatureDiver)

"Nobody seems to be in a position to look at the whole system and say if we don't slow some ships down or reschedule, we're going to have too many grain ships or coal ships," he said. "This is why we think government needs to step in and coordinate it."

The South Coast Ship Watch Alliance says in addition to air, water, noise and light pollution, the heavy chains used to anchor the giant freighters are continually scraping the seabed and ruining fish and plant habitat. 

Madiwal says the current backlog in the port will take a couple of weeks to resolve once rail operations return to normal.

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