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Maritime search and rescue and shipping risk: How does it work in Canada?

13 minute read

Understanding the mechanics of maritime search and rescue (SAR) and how maritime risks are governed in Canada.

It was just after midnight on March 22, 2006. In the words of one witness, the seas were “pretty good”1 and the weather crisp and clear when the Queen of the North – a ferry operated by BC Ferries – en route from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy ran aground near Gil Island, along British Columbia’s Inside Passage. The ship, carrying 101 passengers including 42 crew members, took considerable damage to its hull and began sinking.

The ferry’s crew immediately issued a distress call to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Victoria, who began the dispatch of SAR teams as the crew evacuated passengers into lifeboats. Meanwhile, in nearby Hartley Bay – home of the Gitga’at First Nation and the Gitga’at Guardian Watchmen program, and site of one of the Royal Canadian Marine’s Search and Rescue Stations2 (station 70) – local SAR vessels were sent out.3 With just over 26 km to travel by boat, the Gitga’at, who were well trained in emergency response and had valuable local knowledge, were first on the scene. They maintained constant radio communication with the Canadian Coast Guard and the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, which arrived on the scene nearly two hours later.3,4

The timely reaction of the Gitga’at First Nation, who were also assisted by local villagers in their own boats in the sparsely populated area, helped save all but two of the people onboard the ferry that night. To this day, the success of this highly collaborative response effort between the Gitga’at First Nation and the Canadian Coast Guard continues to set an example for other SAR missions across Canada.

Gitga’at Guardians with the Gitga’at Guardian vessel
Gitga’at Guardians with the Gitga’at Guardian vessel. Photo by Brodie Guy
Source: Coast Funds

But do all Canadian SAR operations follow an integrative response approach like the Queen of the North incident? Who oversees these operations, and how are shipping risks and maritime SAR governed in our waters?

What is maritime search and rescue?

Let’s start from the beginning: In Canada, maritime SAR refers to searching for and delivering aid to any person, ship, or craft in danger or distress in the marine environment, or feared to find itself in such a position.5 This can include passengers and crews of commercial or recreational vessels, unmotorized craft such as a kayak or canoe, or a person who’s fallen overboard. The Canadian Coast Guard’s SAR mission statement is “to save and protect lives in the maritime environment” with a goal to “save 100% of lives at risk.”5

Why is maritime search and rescue important?

Canada has the world’s longest coastline, spanning over 243,000 km,6 and is responsible for delivering maritime SAR services in an area greater than 5.3 million km2 across three ocean basins – Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic.5 Due to their unpredictable conditions and freezing temperatures, Canadian waters can threaten the life of anyone who ventures out on them. The growing number of commercial vessels and pleasure craft in these waters,7 coupled with the complex coastal environment, increase the need for comprehensive and effective SAR services in case a maritime incident or accident occurs.

What is risk governance in the context of maritime search and rescue?

Risk governance around maritime SAR is a decision-support system that refers to how maritime risks are being assessed and managed. This system includes the assessment of potential risks, response capacities, and SAR operations, and can be understood as risk-related policy and decision-making for coping with uncertain, complex, and ambiguous risks.

Risks from maritime SAR have impacts on the health and safety of response crews and the individuals in need of rescue. Furthermore, SAR teams and operations are facing high levels of uncertainty caused by fast-changing conditions – wave action, currents, weather, etc. – and sparse information. Managing the risks involved in SAR is therefore a balancing act: is the level of risk to which the rescue team is exposed during the operation acceptable and justified to reduce the level of risk victims are dealing with? Although the uncertainty around SAR adds a layer of difficulty to risk assessments in the field and in real time, it’s a component that the risk management process needs to account for, nonetheless.

How is maritime search and rescue structured in Canada?

In Canada, maritime SAR is a formalized process that follows the national guidelines and procedures outlined in the Canadian Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual. SAR operations are conducted under the federal SAR system, which establishes a unified command. This approach, which is similar to the one used for oil spill response, helps coordinate SAR activities and the exchange of information between the different partners – federal agencies, response organizations, volunteer groups, rightsholders – involve in the rescue mission. As time is of the essence in SAR operations, response vessels and personnel must be informed and deployed as quickly and effectively as possible, to optimize the survival rate of victims. A unified command approach can ensure the timely and streamlined sharing of critical information.

How is information gathered and mobilized during search and rescue operations?

Because uncertainty is an inherent component of maritime SAR, the information available to responders when an incident is reported is often limited and incomplete. Consequently, they must get information from any available source to enhance their understanding of the event. Response team may use sources like Facebook and automatic tracking systems, such as satellite or the ground Automatic Identification System, to determine the last known location of people and ships in distress. The Canadian Coast Guard works with its federal partners – the Department of National Defence, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Transport Canada, Public Safety Canada – and relevant parties to gather further information, build their response plan and dispatch the necessary resources.

Who is involved in maritime search and rescue?

Search and rescue – and the risk governance around it – is a real team effort as it involves many agencies and organizations at the national and international level. These parties participate in SAR operations by sharing information and concerns to inform decision-making and by taking part in the response effort.

Icon of globeMaritime search and rescue at the international level

Member States, including Canada, set the international standards through the International Maritime Organization by establishing a regulatory framework to govern marine shipping. This is achieved by adopting various conventions (international agreements), whereby Member States agree to adopt, implement, and enforce the requirements through national law. This is often achieved by the establishment of new Acts and regulations and the revision of existing legislation.

The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum among the eight Arctic States and the Indigenous Peoples living in the Arctic. This forum promotes collaboration between parties to implement policies in the region. It has resulted in legally binding cooperation agreements addressing SAR and Arctic scientific cooperation.8 The Arctic Council also facilitates working groups; For example, the ‘Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response’ working group focuses on knowledge sharing and the development of risk assessment methodologies specific to Arctic SAR.9

The Inuit Circumpolar Council is a permanent participant in the Arctic Council. It is actively involved in Arctic policy issues, including SAR, and is informed by the Inuit in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Chukotka (Russia).10

Canadian Maple Leaf icon Maritime search and rescue at the national level

In Canada, different agencies are responsible for SAR operations depending on where the incident occurs. For instance, the Canadian Armed Forces are responsible for aeronautical incidents, the Canadian Coast Guard is responsible for marine incidents, and Parks Canada is responsible for incidents within national parks.11

The National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS) actively coordinates international efforts and provides program and policy support. NSS is the authority responsible SAR with federal, provincial, territorial, and local partners at the national level. It is also responsible for developing SAR policy with the partners, stakeholders and rightsholders involved and supporting the National Search and Rescue Program.12

Transport Canada holds a supporting role in SAR operations. It establishes legislation and implements programs that promote maritime safety. Transport Canada’s primary roles are to ensure proper outreach and education, oversee and enforce legislation, and encourage compliance with the appropriate regulations. Other federal, provincial, territorial, and local government agencies provide input and data to enhance the mission.

The Canadian Coast Guard is the lead agency for delivering the marine portion of the National Search and Rescue Program. The Canadian Coast Guard ensures there is adequate SAR coverage, resources, and capabilities to respond to maritime incidents. It works in collaboration with the Department of National Defence to detect incidents and coordinate, control, and conduct SAR operations. This is done through three Joint Rescue Coordination Centres (JRCC) and two Maritime Rescue Sub-Centres (MRSC). Each centre is staffed 24/7 and is responsible for its region of response. During an incident, the SAR mission coordinators within the appropriate JRCC are notified and coordinates the response.

Area of Response of Joint Rescue Coordination Centres and Maritime Rescue Sub-Centres
Area of Response of Joint Rescue Coordination Centres and Maritime Rescue Sub-Centres
Source: Transport Canada

Several volunteer organizations support maritime SAR by increasing response capacity. These include the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association, the Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada, the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, and the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary through which 4,000 volunteers enhance Canada’s SAR capacity from coast to coast to coast.

Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, Station 5
Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, Station 5 – Crescent Beach, BC
Source: Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue

Coastal Indigenous communities also play an important role in SAR, as depicted in the Queen of the North incident. They provide enhanced response capabilities in many regions and remote areas across Canada and are often the firsts on-site when an incident occurs in the vicinity of their lands and waters. Under the Canadian Coast Guard’s Indigenous Community Boat Volunteer Pilot Program, a dozen Indigenous coastal communities – from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia – have built SAR capabilities, since 2017. Along the coast of British Columbia, the Coastal Nations Coast Guard Auxiliary – composed of members from seven Nations – support the Canadian Coast Guard’s by providing voluntary SAR and coastal safety patrol services.

Members of various West Coast First Nations taking part in SAR training in Bamfield, British Columbia

Source: Canadian Coast Guard

The involvement of Indigenous communities in SAR also extends beyond their participation in response operations. Rightsholders can inform decision-making in maritime SAR risk governance by sharing invaluable information based on lived experiences, Indigenous knowledge, and others. This privileged information – that would not otherwise be accessible – helps scientists, decision-makers, and responders improve their overall understanding of SAR risks and influences response strategies.

How are decisions around maritime search and rescue made at the federal level?

Decisions in maritime SAR risk governance are largely centered around capacity, resources, and training. These include deciding which areas may need additional resources – SAR stations, vessels, equipment – and where to situate them, as well as deciding who needs to be involved, along with when and how.

When seeking to make changes to the federal SAR system, including how risks are assessed and managed, they must often pass through both the Search and Rescue Operational Governance Committee and the Interdepartmental Committee on Search and Rescue. These committees meet regularly to discuss issues related to policy, planning, resources, the effectiveness of the SAR program, governance, and risk management. Other forums for collaboration include the National Search and Rescue Secretariat, the Canadian Marine Advisory Council, and the National Marine Advisory Board. These partners work collaboratively to build proposals to address new and emerging risks.

How are decisions around maritime search and rescue made at the local level?

Decision-makers rely on the knowledge and experience of certified mariners13 and personnel as well as natural and social science data to inform evidence-based decision-making. Often, the decisions are based on professional judgment at the time of the incident. Nevertheless, support tools such as the Risk Based Analysis of Maritime Search and Rescue Delivery (RAMSARD) helps make decisions by providing a structured approach to reduce risk, allocate resources, and identify concerns of rightsholders and stakeholders. It uses risk analysis to assess and evaluate preparedness, distribute the appropriate resources to mitigate risks, and identify and fix gaps in the SAR system. For example, the Arctic RAMSARD report influenced decisions to enhance response capacity across the Arctic and led to actionable recommendations such as increasing training and equipment, expanding the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and establishing a new Arctic SAR station.

SAR Volunteer spotlight:

For Randy Strandt, a volunteer with the RCM-SAR Station 2 in North Vancouver, BC, giving back to the community was an important driver in his decision to get involved in search and rescue: “I was a volunteer firefighter in my hometown. When I moved to Vancouver for college, I wanted to do something similar and give back to the community. That’s how I got involved in search and rescue, and 25 years later, I’m still here.” For all these years, Randy and his fellow volunteers at the North Vancouver station have spent an average of 50 hours on the water, 100 hours in training, and more than 2,000 hours on-call per year to keep the local waters safe.

“Canada wouldn’t have the system of safety it has if not for volunteers. We live in a big country. As soon as you leave major metropolitan areas, you’re in the hands of volunteers to help you in case of a marine incident or if you get lost or hurt on the water,” he says. “The reliance Canada has on SAR volunteers is quite important. British Columbia alone has 29,000 kilometres of coastline. There are RCM-SAR stations in 33 communities along the coast. Because of the geographical coverage and local proximity these SAR stations provide, volunteers are often the first to arrive on the scene when search and rescue services are needed.”

When asked about the role collaboration plays in Canada’s SAR system, Randy is clear: “There’s rarely an incident that doesn’t involve some level of collaboration, even the smallest, most simple incidents. Whether it’s First Nations, fire departments, ambulances, the police, or the province, multiple organizations and assets are mobilized to participate in the response. Collaboration is essential at every level. There’s always room for improvement, but based on my experience, this collaboration works pretty well in Canada.”

How can you get involved in maritime search and rescue?

There are numerous ways that rightsholders, stakeholders, and other interested parties can get involved in the way maritime search and rescue risks are assessed and managed. These opportunities range from knowledge sharing to actively participating in the response. The following table provides a summary of potential opportunities.

Rightsholders Stakeholders Public
Who? Indigenous peoples (First Nations, Inuit, Métis) Industry (e.g., shipping, cruise operators, port authorities, fisheries, etc.), volunteer/auxiliary groups, coastal communities, non-governmental organizations, private organizations, researchers, and other affected parties Recreational boaters and individuals not belonging to the previous groups or who are indirectly affected


Learn more

Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) in Canada briefly outlines the goals of maritime SAR and how the program is delivered in Canada.

International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue manual (IAMSAR) provides the international standards for how to operationalize maritime SAR including how it is organized, managed, and coordinated.

Canadian Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue manual (CAMSAR) provides national guidelines and standards to organize, manage, and coordinate SAR operations.

Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan (OPP) established 57 initiatives throughout the country to increase environmental protection, promote marine safety, encourage stronger Indigenous partnerships, and engage coastal communities.

Research Team

This blog was written in collaboration with Dalhousie University’s researchers as part of Clear Seas’ Demystifying Maritime Governance research project.

Headshot of Jessica Cucinelli

Jessica Cucinelli, Jessica Cucinelli is a Research Assistant in Industrial Engineering at Dalhousie University, where she recently graduated from the Marine Affairs Program. Her research interests include maritime shipping governance, marine risk analysis, and impact assessments of shipping.

Headshot of Floris Goerlandt

Floris Goerlandt, Floris Goerlandt is Assistant Professor in Industrial Engineering at Dalhousie University, where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Risk Management and Resource Optimization for Marine Industries. His research interests include methods and approaches for analysis and management of risks involving maritime transportation systems.

Headshot of Ronald Pelot

Ronald Pelot, Ronald Pelot is a Professor of Industrial Engineering at Dalhousie University. He specializes in maritime traffic and risk modelling for improved safety, security, and environmental protection at sea.


1 Globe and Mail. (2013). Weather was calm on night of fatal ferry sinking, court hears.
2 The Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue has Rescue Stations established in 33 communities on Canada’s West Coast and Interior. These stations are equipped with at least one search and rescue vessel – depending on the location – and are operated by volunteers on call, ready to respond to maritime emergencies 24/7.
3 Transportation Safety Board of Canada. (2006). Marine investigation report M06W0052.
4 Discovery Canada. (2020). Queen of the North passenger rescue by the Gitga’at First Nation community of Hartley Bay.
5 Canadian Coast Guard. (2019). Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) in Canada.
6 Statistics Canada. (2016). International Perspective.
7 Transport Canada. (2020). Transportation in Canada: Statistical Addendum 2020.
8 Arctic Council. (2021). International cooperation in the Arctic.
9 Arctic Council. (1991). Emergency prevention, preparedness, and response.
10 Arctic Council. (2021). Inuit Circumpolar Council.
11 Public Safety Canada. (2019). National Search and Rescue Program.
12 Public Safety Canada. (2017). National Search and Rescue Secretariat.
13 Certified mariners hold a Certificate of Competency that acts as a licence and ensures every mariner has sufficient knowledge and skills to work and operate ocean-going vessels.

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