In the early hours of Oct. 13, a petroleum tug-barge tanker called the Nathan E. Stewart ran aground near Waglisla (Bella Bella) on the central coast of British Columbia, crashing into one of the richest ecological and cultural treasures in Wax'wuisaxv-s Haiłzakv (Territory of the Heiltsuk First Nation).
Almost three weeks later, the sunken tug is still there, still intermittently leaking diesel, and clean-up efforts have barely begun.
As someone who works and lives in Bella Bella, and who has spent time as an observer for the Heiltsuk Nation in the aftermath of the crash, what I've been seeing firsthand has left me concerned.
The Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia's West Coast comprises the largest intact temperate rainforest on earth. It's a place of snow-capped mountains, towering trees, and diverse wildlife inextricably linked to the marine environment. Populations of black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, and eagles make their living from the sea, thriving on the salmon that fill rivers in the fall, the spawning herring whose eggs paint beaches white in the spring, and the intertidal invertebrates that live in the interface between the forest and sea year-round.
A stone's throw from shore and you're in the realm of orcas, humpback whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, octopuses, and countless other species that thrive in these clean, cold, nutrient-rich waters. As a conservation biologist with the science-based nonprofit Raincoast Conservation Foundation who is lucky enough to live as a guest in Bella Bella, I'm often astounded by the richness of my home.
The region is home to numerous First Nations, including the Heiltsuk. To the people from here, the mountains, trees, animals and waters aren't just picturesque, but sacred. They are relatives and teachers, medicines and foods.
The risks of marine transport, especially of oil, have been a concern here for years. With eerie timing, a film recently created by students at the Bella Bella Community School summarizing these concerns was released just four days before the Nathan E. Stewart drove into a reef on a calm clear night, in a channel three kilometers wide. (A representative of the Houston-based owner has apologized.)
Thankfully the petroleum barge it was pushing was not loaded at the time, but the tug sank and began spilling thousands of gallons of diesel into Seaforth Channel and nearby Qvúqvái ("Gale Creek" in English).
That this happened at all is disappointing, but where it happened is tragic. I've been privileged to spend a day with some 60 orcas here, a week with wolves eating herring eggs from the beach, and I've had countless commutes delayed by unexpected encounters with whales, porpoises, and bears.
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More importantly, this is where the Q̓vúqvay̓aítx̌v people, one of the five Heiltsuk tribes, come from, along with their stories, names, families and chiefs. Ancient stone fish traps grace its shores, a hint of the deep history written visibly on the land. It provides at least 25 harvested species of marine organisms. It harbours the most important clam beds in the territory (now closed due to likely contamination), which provide considerable winter employment.
It provides kelp for traditional roe-on-kelp harvest of herring eggs. Edible seaweed is also harvested nearby, as are many species of salmon and other fish. Not long ago, it was a prime spot to harvest abalone, and the very reef the tug now sits upon remains habitat for the endangered species.
Since the sinking, I've been spending time in the air, on the water, and on the land as an observer for the Heiltsuk Nation. The contrasts between the place's richness and the consequences of the spill are notable. Looking in one direction you might think you're in a nature documentary, with humpbacks and orcas, snow geese migrating past by the hundreds, and radio reports of sea otters, wolves, and deer coming in. However, pan left and you see the sunken tug and continued signs of contamination.
Zoom in and you might notice the seemingly picturesque landscape is marred. I've stood on a beach where the usual refreshing smell of low tide was replaced by a thick, sickening odour of diesel, just upslope of beds of once edible California mussels, large patches of eelgrass, and a dizzying array of seaweeds, anemones, sculpins, snails, chitons, barnacles, and encrusting algaes.
But the main thing I've seen first-hand is disarray, and the near impossibility of containment, recovery, and cleanup of petroleum once it enters this marine environment. This despite the impressive professionalism of Canada's Coast Guard on the scene, the hordes of experts brought in from around the world, and of course the tireless dedication of members of the Heiltsuk Nation who have dropped everything to devote themselves to the response.
This environment is simply not conducive to anyone's best efforts. Booms placed carefully to contain ongoing leaks from the tug get torn apart in front of our eyes, rendered useless in winds, swells, currents, and tides that are not unusual for this time of year. Weather has similarly prevented work crews from reaching the wreck or the shores to do work. The latest we've heard is that the tug might be removed within the week.
This crash is an important reminder that no matter what safeguards are in place, accidents happen. When they do, the damage is done.
Coverage of this spill has been mostly relegated as a 'local news' piece, but it should be a global story. When we return home each night in Bella Bella, we hear news of ongoing conflicts over the North Dakota pipeline. Although half a continent apart, the connection is haunting: the Standing Rock Sioux tribe's worst fears have just become the Heiltsuk Nation's reality, with no obvious end in sight.
Kyle Artelle is a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, a PhD candidate with the Reynolds Lab and the Applied Conservation Sciences Lab; and a Wilburforce Fellow, Hakai Scholar and Vanier Fellow. Much of his work occurs in collaboration with the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department, Qqs Projects Society, Spirit Bear Research Foundation, and the Central Coast Bear Working Group. He tweets at @KyleArtelle.
Top image: Spill-containing booms rest on eelgrass beds at lowtide, just downslope from a contaminated beach, with the sunken Nathan E. Stewart looming in the background. Eelgrass provides critical nursery habitat for salmon and many other species of fish in the area. Image: Heiltsuk Nation/Kyle Artelle
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