Nova Scotia

Aging fleet forcing Canadian researchers to hitch rides to North Atlantic

A new report reflects disenchantment among academia, government and industry, who told the consultants the situation was "beyond absurd," "extremely frustrating" and "dysfunctional and inefficient."

New report charts steep decline in Canada's ability to deliver ocean research from Atlantic Canada

Scheduled refits for ageing Canadian Coast Guard ships, like the CCGS Alfred Needler, have become lengthier due to their longevity and unanticipated repair needs. In 2018, scientists failed to finish an annual summer survey off Nova Scotia because of a mechanical breakdown on the research ship. (CBC)

Her work as a chemical oceanographer has often taken Liz Kerrigan to the rolling seas of Canada's North Atlantic.

It's not glamorous.

Her laboratory is inside a converted six-metre-long ship container lashed to the deck.

For eight years, the Halifax-based marine researcher has always had to hitch a ride on a ship from another country.

"I've been able to go on a lot of different vessels. I've actually never gone on a Canadian vessel. I've been on two German vessels and one Irish vessel," she says in an interview at Dalhousie University.

"It's a definitely a problem for Canadian ships."

Her experience is no surprise, given the findings of a new report charting the steep decline in Canada's ability to deliver ocean research in Atlantic Canada.

The report presents a bleak picture of a Canadian research fleet hobbled by ship retirements and increasingly prone to breakdowns and lengthening maintenance periods.

Liz Kerrigan is a chemical oceanographer. (CBC)

"Despite indications of this developing gap almost a decade and a half ago, it is surprising that no plan is currently in place to increase this capacity. What does exist is a program to replace the extremely aged research vessel fleet over the next seven years or so," says the report from Hughes Offshore and Shipping Services.

The Hughes report reflects disenchantment among academia, government and industry, who told the consultants the situation was "beyond absurd," "extremely frustrating" and "dysfunctional and inefficient."

The report, called Assessment of Research Vessel Needs and Opportunities in Atlantic Canada, was commissioned by the Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR) at Dalhousie University.

Here are some of the findings:

  • Service levels today are between 32 percent and 38 percent of what was available in 1986/87, using days at sea as a measure.
  • The federal government spent $4.6 million in 2017/18 chartering private vessels to meet its basic ocean monitoring commitments.
  • For a comparable cost, a European scientific research vessel, equipped, crewed, and supplied with fuel and consumables could have provided 170 days of sea time for a scientific crew of over 20.
  • The average age of Canada's research vessel fleet is 35 years. The average age of merchant ships sent for scrap in 2018 was 31.72 years.
Doug Wallace is a Canada Excellence Research Chair who leads the MEOPAR research group. (CBC)

"It's a crisis," says Doug Wallace, a Canada Excellence Research Chair who leads the MEOPAR research group.

Wallace says Canada's decline comes as climate change makes understanding the ocean more important than ever.

"What that means is we're increasingly restricted in what we can do at a time when our oceans are becoming more and more critical both for Canada and also for the world."

Create a clearinghouse?

Three new federal fisheries vessels will enter service in the 2020s.

They will replace existing capacity and improve service, but will not address the gap for universities, industry and provincial governments.

"What is clearly lacking is a coordinated, collaborative and cooperative process to maximize the economic benefits of chartering a vessel or otherwise providing vessel capacity through a 'pooled' funding mechanism by efficiently scheduling research activities from multiple stakeholders," the report states.

"We just don't at the moment have the structures in place really to do that to do that either in Atlantic Canada or on a national basis," says Wallace.

He suggests a clearinghouse to sort through applications for sea time.

Squeezing more time out of 56-year-old Hudson

In the meantime Canada muddles along, symbolized by the oldest vessel in the fleet — the 56-year-old oceanographic science vessel CCGS Hudson.

Hudson is currently in St. John's awaiting a $10-million, Phase 2, "life extension" refit aimed at squeezing another five to 10 years out of the ship. Hudson will be out of service until July at the earliest.

The famed research vessel, CCGS Hudson, has been in service since 1962. (John Darrell David/Facebook)

A vessel has been hired to fill in, with an option to extend the charter if Hudson is not ready.

The Phase 1 life extension refit at Heddle Marine in Hamilton in 2017 ran five months and was still unfinished when the federal government lost patience and towed Hudson out of the shipyard.

For now, researchers like Liz Kerrigan at Dalhousie University will catch a ride when they can.

"You're trying to make partnerships with other groups and other universities in other countries who have ship time. It's nice when they want to use our waters. If a German ship wants to come and take samples around here they kind of have to offer up some spots to us," she says.

"It would be really nice to have our own ship."


About the Author

Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.