Nova Scotia

Oil tanker stops unexpectedly off Cape Breton, 8 crew members sick with COVID-19

An oil tanker has dropped anchor near Port Hawkesbury, N.S. One crew member has been transported to shore to be treated for COVID-19, while another seven on-board crew members have also tested positive.

Transport Canada says the vessel can't leave until the Public Health Agency of Canada allows

The STI San Telmo was not on course for Nova Scotia but had to anchor after sending one sick crew member onshore. (Adam McNamara)

An oil tanker that's been anchored unexpectedly off Port Hawkesbury, N.S., since Sunday changed course to Cape Breton over concerns of possible COVID-19-related sickness on board the vessel.

The STI San Telmo, a 183-metre-long and 32-metre-wide oil tanker, was bound for Montreal when it stopped off Port Hawkesbury after medically transporting a crew member to shore over the weekend.

Karl Risser, Atlantic inspector for the International Transport Workers Federation, said Wednesday that the crew member has tested positive for COVID-19 and is staying in a hotel. The individual is being monitored daily by Public Health officials.

He said seven more crew members who are on board the ship have also tested positive for COVID-19.

"I think everything is being handled appropriately as far as my understanding and we're going to keep a close eye on things until the vessel moves out," said Risser, whose organization represents foreign seafarers in Canada.

Unclear how many crew members ship has

Risser said the rest of the crew is being tested and monitored.

"We want to follow all the public health recommendations and make sure these seafarers receive medical attention, because they've been keeping the supply chain going during this COVID crisis," he said.

It's unclear how many crew members the vessel has, but Risser said a ship of that size typically needs up to 22.

Cybelle Morin, a spokesperson for Transport Canada, said the department "is aware of potential cases of COVID-19 involving a foreign-flagged vessel."

"We are closely monitoring the situation and working with the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency, the shipping company and other federal, provincial, and local partners to ensure appropriate measures are taken to maintain marine safety and public health," Morin said via email.

The vessel is safely anchored, Morin said, and crew members who remain on board are following public health guidelines.

"It presents no risks to port personnel or marine safety. The vessel can leave its anchorage only when the Public Health Agency of Canada agrees," Morin said.

Ship owner grateful for help

A spokesman for the ship's owner, STI San Telmo Shipping Company Ltd., said the crew is doing as well as can be expected.

Pat Adamson said one crew member was taken off due to the virus, seven more on board have tested positive, nine are negative and four are inconclusive.

Adamson said those left on the ship are isolating and cleaning as needed.

"At the moment, they're feeling OK. Of course, morale is always affected by these things, but the company has put in place its COVID management plan and so everybody at least on board knows what's going on, what's going to happen."

Adamson said for now, the plan is to keep testing the crew and await word from public health officials before shipping out.

He said the ship's owners are grateful for the help they're getting from Transport Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

"Our No. 1 priority of course in these sort of situations is the safety and welfare of the crew on board ... and of course the safety and welfare of all those people on shore who are dealing with this matter and dealing with it in a very professional and positive manner."

A challenging time for seafarers

SMK Tanker Agency, a transportation service based in Quebec and the vessel's local Canadian agent, declined comment.

The STI San Telmo sails out of the Marshall Islands, which is an associated state of the U.S. situated near the equator in the Pacific Ocean.

According to an online marine tracking tool, the STI San Telmo departed Antwerp, Belgium, on March 31. 

Risser said the pandemic has been particularly hard on seaborne crew.

At one point, 400,000 seafarers were stuck on board ships, Risser said, making them "basically floating quarantines" for the people who supply 80 to 90 per cent of the goods sold in Canada.

The need to be diligent 

"Unfortunately, it's like a double-edged sword for them. At first, there were no crew changes because of the border closures and stuff, so we had guys on board for long periods of time," he said.

"Now that we have crew changes, ships are tight working conditions so there could be outbreaks of COVID on board vessels, so we have to be very diligent about monitoring the situation on board those vessels."

Risser said since crew change restrictions were lifted, this is the second incident of COVID-19 infection involving a crew member of a foreign-flagged vessel in Atlantic Canada.

He said once all Canadians have been vaccinated, officials need to consider making vaccines available to international seafarers.

With files from Tom Ayers