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Anchors Away: Understanding the Issues About Ships at Anchor

14 minute read

As Canada’s international trade and the global demand for its products continues to grow, the need for anchorages, which allow ships to wait outside a harbour to unload or pick-up their cargos, has increased. This has an impact on coastal areas, the environment and on the traditional activities of Indigenous communities.

Anchorages are a contentious and polarizing subject. In Canada, the ships most commonly at anchor are bulk carriers loading products such as grain, coal, iron ore, sulphur and potash destined for international markets. For many, they are a sign of Canada’s economic growth and prosperity, but for others, the sight and sound of ships at anchor are a blight on the landscape and a risk to the environment.

A large portion of the opposition to anchorages comes from people who live near and around the waters of Vancouver and the Salish Sea. The issue is created because Vancouver is Canada’s largest bulk export port and anchorages are mostly associated with dry bulk ships that carry solid materials rather than liquid goods such as oil. The concern is that anchorages will directly affect the environmentally sensitive waters and residents of the Gulf Islands and surrounding waters along British Columbia’s southern coast. The debate is less of an issue in other parts of the country, but some of the environmental concerns still arise no matter the location.

What is an anchorage?

In its simplest meaning, an anchorage is a suitable area in which to anchor a ship. The right to anchor a vessel is part of the common law right of navigation, which allows vessels to anchor temporarily and for a reasonable period of time in any appropriate location, unless specifically prohibited by statute or regulation. Some ships may only be anchored for a few hours but others will stay for weeks while they wait to collect or offload their cargo.

Commercial ships anchored in English Bay, Vancouver, BC.
Commercial ships anchored in English Bay, Vancouver, BC.

Do ships have the right to seek anchorage?

The right to anchorage is subject to local regulations but falls under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which provides for free navigation. In Canada, port authorities are responsible for the management of anchorages within the jurisdiction of their port. Any anchorages outside of a port’s authority fall under the jurisdiction of Transport Canada (TC).

In the case of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (VFPA) they manage 28 long term anchorages located in English Bay, the Inner Harbour and Indian Arm. There are also an additional 33 anchorages available in the Salish Sea, which are administered by – and the responsibility of – Transport Canada. Under the Interim Protocol for the use of Southern B.C. Anchorages, TC has asked the VFPA to assist by assigning ships to anchorages around the Gulf Islands.

Anchorages in the Salish Sea

The port does this by using an algorithm to assign anchorages equitably. According to a description published on the port’s website, considerations include: “[The]…size of vessel, anchorage use in Vancouver, the number of days an anchorage has been vacant, when it was last used, and the average number of days it was occupied. Wherever possible, we avoid assigning ships to Gulf Island anchorages.”

The use of anchorages is on the rise on the British Columbia coast due to the growth in bulk traffic. According to TC, Vancouver has seen a 4 per cent increase in anchorage use every year since 2011.

What’s the harm of ships sitting there? What are the environmental effects of anchorages?

Ships at anchor have the potential to cause a variety of negative effects on the marine environment. This includes generating underwater noise that disturbs marine mammals (even when the ship is not in transit), importing invasive species, damaging the seafloor through the action of their anchor, dumping of waste and effluent, and air pollution from engine exhaust. And there’s the threat of spilled fuel oil should a ship run aground.

Complaints collected by the VFPA include the general visual impact, noise from the generators, light pollution, anchor washing and ballast practices, and complaints relating to general safety and the age of the ships.

In Canada’s North, residents of Nunavut want to see stricter guidelines around anchorages for pleasure craft, non-local vessels and larger ships. Some note that the extended presence of larger ships is affecting the migration patterns of animals driving some away for up to a month. As with many contentious public policy issues, it is not always a simple issue and can be quite nuanced. Some residents want to see port development so that there will be safely designated boundaries and anchorages with enforceable regulations; others want to see improved communication between vessels and the communities around anchorages.

For Indigenous communities, anchorages affect their way of life and ability to harvest food. The Cowichan Tribes, who live along the Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea, have expressed opposition to anchorages based on the need to protect clam beds, prawns, oysters and endangered species such as Southern Resident killer whales. They are especially concerned about anchor dragging and scouring.

Ship anchors can weigh up to 30 tonnes and are designed to hold vessels in place. The anchor chain can be hundreds of metres long, and the excess chain lies on the seafloor to stabilize the vessel in waves, wind, and currents. When the vessel swings around due to changes in wind or tides, the anchor chain can drag across the seabed and cause damage to the seafloor as well as to flora and fauna. In areas where multiple ships frequently anchor, the environmental damage can add up and research into the lasting effects is ongoing.

What are the dangers associated with a failed or dragging anchor?

The most serious threat from ships at anchor is the prospect of running aground if the anchor is unable to hold the ship in position. The threat becomes even more serious during windy weather and storms. With the strong winds and currents that are present along Canada’s coasts, it only takes a matter of minutes before a ship dragging its anchor could run aground or collide with another ship and spill its fuel oil with potentially disastrous consequences.

Research conducted by Clear Seas for the Maritime Commercial Incidents and Accidents Map Project (to be released later in 2021) shows that anchor dragging is a common issue in Canadian waters. For example, in Prince Rupert, BC, there was a total of 32 vessels involved in anchor dragging incidents in the study area between 2008 to 2018. In Saint John, New Brunswick, 13 vessels were involved in anchor dragging incidents and 12 in Vancouver during that same 10-year period.

Fortunately, none of these incidents resulted in a serious accident or spill because the safety management systems (SMS) ships have in place require the monitoring of anchor integrity and for the master in charge and bridge team to take action like increasing the length of anchor chain or starting the main engines and repositioning the ship if there are indications that a failure of the anchoring system is imminent. In large ports like Vancouver and Prince Rupert, tugs and pilots are on hand to reposition the ship if it’s anchor starts to drag. The Canadian Coast Guard reports that one of the Emergency Towing Vessels acquired in part due to the need identified in Clear Seas’ research is being positioned to further mitigate the risk in Prince Rupert.

However, things don’t always go according to plan. One recent incident investigated by the Canadian Transportation Safety Board involved a bulk carrier dragging its anchor in poor weather which then collided with another ship at anchor puncturing the drifting ship’s hull with a 30 cm hole above the waterline. There was no pollution or injury in this case and both ships could be repaired. Heavy winds were the culprit behind an incident on November 18, 2009, which saw the bulk carrier Hebei Lion drag its anchor and run aground on Conconi Reef in Plumper Sound, BC. The vessel was refloated and returned to its anchorage at high tide with assistance from a tug with no apparent damage or pollution.

Ships sitting at anchor must be a significant contributor to air pollution?

Ship-source air pollution is a concern for many people living near anchorages and ports around the world. While ports offer incentives to shipping companies that pursue climate friendly policies, ships at anchor, even though they are not moving, need to run auxiliary engines to provide electrical power for the ship. And although the exhaust emissions from these engines are low when compared with emissions from their main engines while navigating the open ocean they can add up, especially when a number of ships are anchored close to an inhabited area for an extended period of time. The effects of air pollution on human health are well documented; emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), and particulate matter (PM) from ship exhaust can cause respiratory issues and contain carcinogenic chemicals.

In collaboration with Clear Seas, a team from University of British Columbia (UBC) is conducting a study that will explore how the decarbonization of marine shipping can provide air quality co-benefits to coastal communities. According to Dr. Amanda Giang, Assistant Professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and the Department of Mechanical Engineering, “Studies have shown that air pollution from ship emissions can contribute to health issues for communities around ports. Our research is expected to shed more light on the topic, as we explore the relationship between shipping, air pollution, and coastal communities. It’s clear that even when a ship is at anchor, this will affect local air quality and impact people living in coastal areas. Although it’s a complex challenge, in the same way that governments have mandated limiting exhaust from idling on-road vehicles, policies that incentivize reducing emissions from ships at anchor could be explored to protect the health of all coastal communities.”

What is the Anchorages Initiative? Has it resolved the controversy?

Partly in recognition of public concerns about anchorages in the Salish Sea, the federal government developed the Interim Protocol for the Use of Southern B.C. Anchorages or the Anchorages Initiative, which took effect on February 8, 2018. This protocol was developed by TC, in collaboration with the Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia, the Shipping Federation of Canada, the Pacific Pilotage Authority, the VFPA, and the Port of Nanaimo.

In addition to giving control of assigning the Gulf Island anchorages to the VFPA, the Anchorages Initiative was also intended to try to address the concerns of coastal communities about the impact of increased use of anchorages. Still, the Islands Trust (a federated body responsible for protecting the islands and surrounding waters in the southern Strait of Georgia and Howe Sound) says that the Initiative has “failed to effectively address the negative impacts of excessive noise and lights from anchoring cargo ships, and does nothing to address the clear and present risks of environmental damage to shorelines.” Despite this criticism, the Anchorages Initiative continues to try to address these concerns and those of First Nations communities impacted by the increased use of anchorages by ships calling on the ports around the Salish Sea.

In August 2021, the federal government and the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority announced that they will develop a new collaborative system to manage marine vessel traffic and optimize the supply chain flow for this strategic gateway by March 31, 2022. The plan will work to reduce negative social impacts such as ambient noise and light pollution by reducing overall anchorage usage in Southern British Columbia and implementing a Code of Conduct for vessels at anchorage. Just as air traffic controllers manage arrivals and departures at airports, this new system will do the same for marine traffic at the Port of Vancouver.

Why are anchorages needed? Can’t ships just head directly to port?

Anchorages and why they are needed are closely tied with the complex supply chain that supports Canada’s international trade. Their existence is rooted in the 70 to 80 per cent of Canada’s trade – especially bulk commodities like agricultural products and minerals – that is moved by ship. In simple terms, ships anchor while waiting their turn to go into port to pick up their cargo. But for Professor Trevor Heaver writing in Lloyds List (Crisis and innovation in bulk shipping, April 22, 2020), who has studied the issue extensively and published a range of research on the topic there is far more beneath the surface. He says that, “the number of ships at anchor at ports is often a sign that problems exist in the supply chain, much like a rash is evidence of measles.”

Ships are subject to unpredictable weather and conditions that can delay their journey, so logistics planners understandably build in a buffer. Dry bulk ships are usually collecting cargo delivered by train to the docks and often, in the words of Prof. Heaver, there is a “race to wait” that sees them taking up anchorages as they wait to enter harbours.

Vancouver G3 Terminal
Ships in Vancouver, BC, loading bulk commodities delivered to the port by train. Image courtesy of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and William Jans (Photographer).

They race because there are costly financial penalties if they aren’t ready on time – penalties that are in place because capacity in the docks, like grain silos, is limited and shippers can’t afford to have it tied up waiting for the ship to arrive. It’s similar to squishing a balloon: the more pressure that is applied in one area, the more the problem moves somewhere else. As Heaver notes, people blame the number of ships at anchor on the port, but it isn’t that the port is not able to handle the surge in traffic, it’s the logistical system of which the port is just a part.

How do delays in the supply chain affect the length of time ships stay at anchor?

In describing the process, the Chamber of Shipping says that the supply side is complex and at times enigmatic. Most vessels arrive within the time-frame allotted to them in the commercial agreement, because of the penalties if they do not, but then have to stay at the anchorage within the vicinity of the port until the shipper is ready to load the cargo. And the cargo is only ready to collect when it arrives by train – a major source of unpredictability in the supply chain.

Additional uncertainty is introduced for vessels loading grain that are required to pass inspection by TC and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. These inspections must be coordinated soon after the vessel arrives and depending on where the vessel is located, this can take time. Terminals do not want vessels alongside unless the ships have already passed the required inspections, again so as not to tie up the limited capacity. And to complicate matters further, grain cannot be loaded in the rain due to safety concerns for marine crews, which given Vancouver’s high annual rainfall can be problematic.

Other hurdles arise around arranging for marine pilots. All vessels in coastal waters must be assisted by a pilot authorized by the pilotage authority, and there are different ordering times for pilots. For example, harbour pilots have a shorter order time than vessels in the more distant southern Gulf Island anchorages.

Supply chain experts agree that a system with multiple sources of variability, a lack of transparency between parties and bottlenecks in capacity like Canada’s Pacific coast bulk export supply chain will inevitably results in slack in the system – exactly what we see through the increase in anchorage usage in and around the port of Vancouver.

Can the issues around anchorages be resolved?

There is no shortage of possible solutions which represent the cross section of views on the topic. One solution was introduced in late 2020 by MP Alistair MacGregor who tabled Private Member’s Bill C-250 in the House of Commons to amend legislation to ban the anchoring of freighters in the Southern Gulf Islands and adjacent Vancouver Island. However, while that is a popular view among many of the residents of the area that is not generally seen as a viable option given the importance of the Port of Vancouver and Canada’s dependence on international trade.

Prof. Heaver notes that a workable solution around anchorages was developed in Newcastle, Australia, which could be a model for Canada, especially the West Coast. In Australia all of the parties involved in shipping coal from mining companies, and railways to terminals, the port corporation and international buyers were brought together by the state government of New South Wales to resolve congested anchorages. The issue was precipitated by the congestion resulting from having as many as 70 bulk carriers at anchor at any one time and the grounding of the coal carrier Pasha Bulker in 2007. Through a collaborative, multi-party process set up by the state government, they developed an automated Vessel Arrival System that ensured ships and cargo arrived at the correct time with the goal of having vessels anchor for no more than 48 hours. Although Prof. Heaver notes this change was easier to implement as it dealt with a single commodity, he believes it could work elsewhere including in the waters around southern British Columbia.

The Chamber of Shipping agrees that a system providing greater transparency and predictability of cargo movements would help in optimizing the scheduling and movement of vessels. The system would recognize that anchorages are an extension of the national supply chain. Key supply chain transportation stakeholders then work with TC through a Commodity Supply Chain Table, which the Chamber credits for progress being made on the needs for accurate rail freight data and transparency on rail performance.

In the view of the Chamber, these are good steps towards developing analytics to eventually provide greater predictability on cargo supply to the West Coast. This will help in providing vessel operators with information to allow for more efficient use of their assets and to permit them to address some of the issues around anchorages.

Is the remedy better technology?

According to Prof. Heaver, the answer is a resounding, “Yes — along with collaboration.” In his words, “We do a lot with much better collaboration and that technology is on our doorstep. We are talking about digitalization. We know where every ship is in the world because of digitalization and we really have to make better use of that information.” This would seem like it is a problem that with the help of technology and the willingness of government, port authorities, exporters, railway companies, port terminal operators and shippers to cooperate is solvable and that the use of anchorages could be significantly reduced to the benefit of industry and coastal communities.


Indigenous Voices

From the water’s edge:

Although the question of anchorages is often described as a supply chain issue subject to the complexities of international trade, for First Nations in the southern Gulf Islands, it is a very real, local problem that affects their food, community and environment.

That is the view of Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour (Squtxulenuhw) who leads the very public face of the opposition to ships at anchor in BC’s coastal waters.

In an interview with the Cowichan Valley Citizen, Chief Seymour said that: “Tanker traffic and anchorages in these inside waters and narrow passages between islands pose an unacceptable risk to the ecological integrity that sustains our food resources, which are critical to the long-term livelihoods and well-being of our members.”

Cowichan Tribes are especially concerned with the health of eelgrass which are part of a complex eco-systems between fresh and salt water. This aquatic plant attracts a diversity of marine life from birds, fish and mammals, and is threatened by invasive species, pollution, and dragging anchors. Read more here.

Ship in Cowichan Bay
Anchorages affect the ecological balance for coastal First Nations


Learn more

Transport Canada. (2020). Understanding anchorages in Canada.

Transport Canada. (2021). Discharge, noise, light and concerns for marine life from anchored vessels.

Transport Canada. (2020). Ports, harbours and anchorages.

Maritime Information System. (2018). Quarterly newsletter no. 11.

Nilliajut 2. (2017). Inuit perspectives on the Northwest Passage, shipping and marine issues.

Lake Superior Magazine. (2014). Why are the boats sitting out there? We answer a few landlubber questions.

Vancouver Sun. (2020). Robert Lewis-Manning: Ships at anchor: Not so hidden lessons from railway blockades.

Cowichan Valley Citizen. (2020). Cowichan Tribes against anchorage of freighter vessels in local waters.

Georgia Strait Alliance. (2019). What’s going on with freighter anchorages in the Southern Gulf Islands.

Transport Canada, Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia, Pacific Pilotage Authority, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, Port of Nanaimo. (2018). Interim protocol for the use of Southern B.C. anchorages (including maps).

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