At the bare minimum, Gord Johns hopes the federal government will put a hold on the impending closure of the Comox Coast Guard station.
The Courtenay-Alberni NDP MP, together with North Island-Powell River NDP MP Rachel Blaney, is also urging government to consider re-opening the Tofino marine communications and traffic services centre in Ucluelet, which was closed in April.
“We would have no marine traffic services control in our riding,” Johns said. “There’s a huge sense of urgency because we’re talking about a timeline of three months from now. The Comox station is a really important station, not just because it’s local knowledge around a very busy area in the Salish Sea, but also it’s the only station that’s not in a tsunami subduction zone. We know we’re going to have an earthquake someday, and we know that mariner safety and marine traffic control is going to play a very important role in any sort of crisis situation. Any given day there’s over 10,000 vessels in the water in the summer on the coast of British Columbia.”
Comox Mayor Paul Ives agrees local knowledge is a “powerful thing,” noting the importance of having a functional station in a pivotal area.
“Given the traffic that’s going up and down here, I think it’s important that we maintain that presence here.”
When the federal Conservatives were in power, the plan for B.C. was to centralize the major coastal stations in Prince Rupert and Victoria. The rationale was efficiency, in terms of software development and better technology. One of the stations — Kitsilano in Vancouver — which the Tories closed in 2013 is scheduled to re-open.
While technology can solve some things, Ives suggests the business case for running from one place is not always beneficial. He has heard, for instance, that the Victoria station is incurring huge overtime costs due to a lack of staff.
“Given the emphasis on trade, we want to make sure we can provide a safe manner of transit for all those boats coming through,” Ives said.
Johns says the role of marine traffic control is to “pluck out that mayday call.
“If we miss a call, that’s a life lost at sea.”
Regarding the October sinking of a whale-watching boat off Tofino when at least five people died, Johns said he has heard rumours the Prince Rupert station could not identify the exact naming point of the location.
“It really comes down to local knowledge.”
He and Blaney both spoke about the issue in the House of Commons, and have discussed the planned closure with Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo. They also compared the economy and vessel traffic in B.C. with marine safety.
“The economy has got ahead and supports for marine safety have been cut.”
In the 1990s when the federal Liberals decreased B.C. Coast Guard stations from 10 to five, Johns said government undertook a public consultation process.
“This time the Conservatives didn’t do that. It was driven on budgets,” he said.
“It’s local knowledge that saves lives. So we urged the minister to focus on local knowledge as the basis for marine safety. Supports for local Coast Guard lifeboat stations, support for marine traffic control, support for equipment and training for coastal communities…We know the minister has difficult decisions to make, but we also know the economy has far outpaced marine safety. They’re inter-connected.
“Eventually you’re going to have an accident on the marine highway from a trade. And coastal British Columbians are going to be pointing the finger at government for not re-investing in marine safety.”