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Nathan E. Stewart Oil Spill:
Five Years After

17 minute read

Five years after the Nathan E. Stewart sank, spilling the equivalent of a railcar’s worth of diesel fuel into the ocean,1 we want to know: could a similar incident happen today and how prepared are we if it does?

When the U.S. registered tug ran aground in British Columbia’s Inside Passage, the event not only affected the local marine environment, but the response effort shone a light on the importance of working with Indigenous Peoples. While the unified command structure put in place immediately by the incident responders included the Heiltsuk Nation in the decision making and spill response from the beginning, the First Nation community felt “anger, alienation and discrimination”2 that persists to this day. The sinking has also prompted important changes in marine safety and oil spill response preparedness, including valuing the knowledge of and participation from Indigenous Peoples.

Learn more about Responding to Oil Spills in Canadian Waters

As the emergency call was received by the Prince Rupert Coast Guard station from the waters around Bella Bella, B.C., after midnight on October 13, 2016, Capt. Sean Connor’s voice was calm, almost routine. “Nathan E. Stewart. Good morning. We have run aground here. […] We are taking on water.”

Location where the Nathan E Stewart spilled diesel fuel
Location where the Nathan E. Stewart articulated tug ran aground and spilled diesel fuel
Source: Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s Marine investigation report (M16P0378)

Within hours of those words being spoken, the 29-metre-long tug, which was pushing an empty barge owned by Texas-based Kirby Offshore Marine Corp. (Kirby), started spilling 110,000 litres of diesel fuel into the waters near Gale Creek in the Seaforth Channel. Another 119,000 litres were still trapped in its tanks and eventually recovered when the tug was lifted out of the water a month later. The barge, though extensively damaged, remained afloat and served as a temporary refuge for the tug’s crew.

Spill containment and salvage efforts were hampered by rough weather, strong currents, and the remoteness of the area. According to the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), unlike heavy oils like bunker fuel or crude oil, diesel spills are more challenging to contain. Efforts were made to recover as much as possible but some of the diesel fuel evaporated or dissipated and dissolved into the water column. Containment booms struggled to hold back the spill, especially in stormy seas.3 Learn more about How Oil Behaves in Water

The Nathan E. Steward articulated tug during the oil spill response and salvage operations
The Nathan E. Stewart articulated tug during the oil spill response and salvage operations
Source: Canadian Coast Guard

How the spill affected the Heiltsuk Nation and their traditional lands and waters

As news of the sinking was making headlines, the rainbow-coloured fuel sheen was rapidly spreading across the traditional waters of the Heiltsuk Nation, where people had lived, stewarding and relying on its bounty, for more than 14,000 years. This management of their territories is integral to the culture of Heiltsuk. In the conclusion of the investigative report issued by the Heiltsuk Tribal Council: “The Spill occurred about one kilometre from Q̓vúqvái, in the heart of Q̓vúqvayá̓itxv territory (Heiltsuk’s traditional lands). Q̓vúqvái, was the main village of the Q̓vúqvayá̓itxv, or “calm water people”; the name reflects the sheltered waterways of Gale Passage.”4 Approximately 350 km of shoreline were affected.5

The location is more than just a GPS point on a map; it represents the Heiltsuk’s very existence and defines who they are as a people. “Our ancestors chose this as a village site because it has a year-round source of fresh water with incredible marine biodiversity and easy access to sea resources throughout the bakvla6 seasons, including herring, seaweed, salmon, bottom fish and shellfish. Q̓vúqváí is in Gale Passage on the edge of the open Pacific with seaward access to Seaforth Channel and Millbank Sound and Thompson Bay to the west.”7

According to the Heiltsuk Nation, the spill impacted the community’s natural food sources. In Impossible to Contain, documentary film maker Zoe Hopkins recounts how the spill polluted the Nation’s food supply through the experience of her mother and aunts as they made a typical family meal. “This is where food security comes from the sanctity of the sea,” in describing the effect the spill had on clam beds, sea cucumbers, abalone and other foods like herring roe, oysters, and prawns. The shutdown of a clam fishery and loss of 50 jobs with a loss of up to $200,000 per year of revenue, is central to the Heiltsuk Nation’s ongoing legal claims. “We’re still not harvesting in that area. We’re not practising our cultural activities in Gale Pass […] It’s been very traumatizing for our community,” said Heiltsuk Nation Chief Marilyn Slett, speaking on the 5th anniversary of the spill to CBC’s The Early Edition.

Three investigations establish cause of sinking

Investigations by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB), the US National Transportation Safety Board and the Heiltsuk Tribal Council uncovered serious mistakes that led to the grounding and subsequent diesel fuel spill. The second mate, who was alone on the bridge, was fatigued and fell asleep. Consequently, he did not make a critical course alteration, and the articulated tug and the barge it was pushing struck and grounded on a reef.

The investigations found that the vessel’s navigational alarms that would have alerted the second mate that the tug had diverted from its intended course were not used, and the vessel did not have a bridge navigational watch alarm system to monitor bridge activity and detect lapses in watchkeeping. The use of these technologies could have prevented the second mate from falling asleep and provided a warning to other crew members below decks. Following the grounding, and after several hours of the tug’s hull pounding on the reef, the hull breached and released diesel fuel into the environment. Although a pollution boom was placed around the tug, rough seas washed over the boom, spreading the fuel.

According to the TSB, the reaction to the incident and the oil spill response and recovery efforts of both the WCMRC and the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) met the prescribed time standards.8 But some aspects of the response lacked coordination because responders weren’t all familiar with the Incident Command System, leading to confusion about the roles and responsibilities of all responding agencies and about who had final authority, the TSB concluded.9

The Heiltsuk Tribal Council’s inquiry established what is known as the “Daduqvlá Committee” to review their findings.10 Composed of an esteemed group of Heiltsuk members, it assessed and adjudicated the spill in the context of Heiltsuk laws. The inquiry report was particularly critical of an issue that is at the centre of the relationship with Indigenous Peoples: the disregard for and disrespect of the Heiltsuk’s ecological knowledge and marine expertise.

The report also provides insight from the Heiltsuk perspective as to how organizations should work with these communities in the future and reveals the contentious nature of the response. From the Heiltsuk perspective, the lack of recognition of the Nation’s stewardship of the environment by responders and the owners of the tug contributed to “perpetuating the colonial mentality and practices that have clearly failed Heiltsuk peoples.”11

For its part, the WCMRC was proud of its response effort with 70 personnel and 20 different vessels on site ranging from tugs to barges and specialized response vessels. The TSB noted that: “The WCMRC also provided safety officers with expertise regarding the safety of the spill response and helped conduct site assessments, safety briefings, response training, health and safety plans, and on-site air monitoring. In addition, the WCMRC allowed Heiltsuk First Nation and government agency observers to be present on board its vessels during recovery operations.”12

Five years on, has the marine protection system changed?

Marine accidents often have many factors at play, which is why the marine protection system has many layers. The first line of defence is prevention, and an important element of the prevention pillar is compulsory marine pilotage in many areas of Canada’s coastal waters. A marine pilot is an experienced mariner certified and regulated under the Pilotage Act who applies specialized knowledge of local waters to direct the captain of a vessel and navigate it through ports and waterways using the safest route. Although transiting through a compulsory pilotage area at the time of the sinking, the Nathan E. Stewart wasn’t required to have a marine pilot on board because the vessel owner had applied for and been granted a waiver13 from the Pacific Pilotage Authority (PPA) based on the qualifications and experience of its crew.

Learn more about What is Marine Pilotage?

Changes to the Pilotage Waiver System

In the aftermath of the sinking, the PPA revoked Kirby’s waivers and updated the conditions for the granting of waivers to other tug and barge operators requiring them to operate a bridge navigational watch and alarm system like the one that might have prevented the Nathan E. Stewart grounding. The conditions also require vessels to have two persons on the bridge when operating in confined waters and not carry, push, or tow oil cargo in designated “no-go” areas including the waters where the Nathan E. Stewart ran aground.14

However, this pilotage waiver system is set to undergo a further overhaul in 2022. As an outcome of Transport Canada’s Pilotage Act Review launched in May 2017, new legislation was proposed that centralizes and standardizes the granting of pilotage exemptions – including the waivers currently issued by PPA. The PPA is conducting a risk assessment as it remains to be seen how this new regimen will impact safety. The full revised regulations are to be published in the Canada Gazette in 2022.

Canadian Coast Guard made significant changes in its emergency response

The CCG learned a significant lesson from the Nathan E. Stewart sinking. Roger Girouard, Assistant Commissioner of the Canadian Coast Guard, Western Region, said that “Like all incidents, the grounding of the Nathan E. Stewart should never have happened and the findings from the Transportation Safety Board’s investigation brought significant changes to both the marine industry and marine pollution response.”

He says that a lot of important changes have been implemented. “Since then, the Coast Guard has come a long way: strengthening our capacity to respond to marine pollution incidents and prevent spills. We’re not done yet but certainly we have shifted the yard stick through some significant investments in infrastructure under the Oceans Protection Plan such as the new marine response depot being constructed in Port Hardy, B.C., six new radars to support improved control of situational awareness of marine traffic, continued investment in environmental equipment – most recently some large, offshore skimmers – and the addition of the two emergency tow vessels to the B.C. Coast.”

Girouard believes that having the right equipment is one part of the equation, but the most important is the investment in the people behind the equipment. “But tools are only as good as the people who hold them and so it’s our investments in people that will have an equally significant impact to the safety of our waters. We’re providing training in environmental response and the Incident Command System, and exercising together on the water, with Indigenous and community partners all over the coast. We saw the success of those investments in people and equipment in the recent successful response to the MV Schiedyk, the shipwreck which was leaking oil in Nootka Sound.”

The sunken Nathan E. Stewart tugboat surrounded with containment booms
The sunken Nathan E. Stewart tugboat surrounded with containment booms
Source: Canadian Coast Guard

Coastal Nations Coast Guard Auxiliary provides local emergency response

One of the Heiltsuk’s recommendations to improve future response was achieved in November 2020 when the Coastal Nations Coast Guard Auxiliary (CN-CGA) commenced on-water operations in the territorial waters of Ahousaht and Heiltsuk First Nations, becoming the first Indigenous-led CN-CGA in Canada. Other CN-CGA response units in Nisga’a, Gitxaala, Quatsino and Kyuquot/Cheklesahht First Nations and Kitasoo/Xai’xais territorial waters will play a key role in responding to any future marine mishap that could lead to a spill. The all-First Nations CN-CGA has more than 50 members each who have been trained to respond to marine emergencies 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year in remote areas along the coast of B.C. Through collaboration and knowledge-sharing, and in partnership with the Canadian Coast Guard, CN-CGA members operate out of five rescue stations to provide maritime search and rescue services, promote water safety, and conduct coastal safety patrols in an auxiliary role to the Coast Guard.

The Canadian Coast Guard is supporting the CN-CGA with training in search and rescue protocols and other on-water training, as well as providing opportunities to purchase vessels, specialized equipment and communications tools through various Oceans Protection Plan projects, such as the new dedicated response vessel launched by Ahousaht First Nation in May 2021 under the CCG Indigenous Community Boat Volunteer Pilot Program.15 Alex Dick, the chair of CN-CGA said, “I foremost recognize the critical role of First Nation communities as members of the Auxiliary in protecting mariners and coastal communities. They are simply the most experienced stewards of the marine environment and are unquestionably vital to Canada’s marine safety system today.”

These actions address some shortcomings outlined in the TSB report. “Within the first 48 hours of the spill response, it was noted that the initial response vessel operators did not have adequate safety equipment, environmental hazardous material suits, gloves, boots, eyewear, or masks on board, and that they often operated alone,” the report found. “The initial community-level response vessels and volunteers responded to local beaches and to the spill site independent of the unified command structure and its operations and safety branches. First responders outside of the unified command structure are generally not obligated to follow directions from the CCG. The CCG is not able to maintain an exclusion zone on the water, making enforcement of public safety challenging.”16

As a result, the CCG implemented a training and engagement process with coastal and Indigenous communities that will outline personal safety issues, provide exposure to the incident command system, and offer equipment and training to assist with first response.

Building local capacity with the Heiltsuk Nation

Another important recommendation by the Heiltsuk to create locally empowered response measures is in the process of being implemented. The Heiltsuk Nation, in collaboration with the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to develop a Marine Emergency Response Team (MERT) pilot project to support a community-based oil spill response within its territory. This will test concepts and inform future discussions about how to improve Canada’s national oil spill preparedness and response regime. If successful, it will mean that local resources will soon be in place, trained and equipped to deal with future incidents.

Under the agreement, a training plan will be put in place to prepare Heiltsuk responders in key spill response activities, and members of the MERT will hone their skills through exercises incorporating Heiltsuk geographic response strategies, as well as through on-water exercises led by the CCG. The Heiltsuk have an inter-generational knowledge of the complex tides, conditions and currents in these waters and will play a key role in any marine emergency. They have also mapped important cultural sites and recorded where they harvest food sources such as shellfish and vegetation.

“We look forward to carrying out this important initiative that will ensure that our community’s responders are prepared to protect our resources from pollution,” said Wígvíɫba-Wákas Harvey Humchitt, Hereditary Chief, Heiltsuk Nation. “This MOU signing represents progress in our collaboration with Transport Canada and the CCG,” he said. The Heiltsuk have developed a partnership with Horizon Maritime that will assist in developing the response centre. They will have as many as 37 employees and the necessary boats and equipment to respond to any marine spills in under five hours compared to the 17 hours response vessels took to arrive on scene when the Nathan E. Stewart sank. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Chief Slett said, “We’re mariners, we live on the coast. Our community has always responded to vessels in distress. This MOU allows us to chart the next steps to expand response when it comes to oceans protection in Heiltsuk territory.”

Oil spill response organizations continue to build capacity in coastal communities

Response organizations have also been playing their part. WCMRC had been working with the Heiltsuk and other coastal First Nations prior to the spill and continues to support building capacity in coastal communities to respond to marine emergencies. “Our Coastal Response Program was designed to involve more communities in spill response planning and training,” Michael Lowry, Senior Communications Manager at WCMRC said. “Similar to our relationship with other coastal nations that have crews and vessels, we would hope to work with the Heiltsuk on training and exercising.”

Reconciliation Framework Agreement fosters collaboration during a marine incident

In June 2018, the Government of Canada and 14 First Nations formally committed to working together to protect the marine environment and improve marine safety over a large geographic area by signing the Reconciliation Framework Agreement for Bioregional Oceans Management and Protection or the Oceans RFA. The Heiltsuk Nation is one of those collaborating to manage, restore and protect the ocean waters on the Pacific North Coast. Under this historic agreement, the parties have launched response planning, proactive vessel management and enhanced maritime situational awareness projects across the Northern Shelf Bioregion (which includes the area where the Nathan E. Stewart sank) to improve marine safety and the local marine environment. They have also created a governance structure including an Executive Committee, Steering Committees and Technical Working Groups. The committees and working groups focus on specific projects in the Northern Shelf Bioregion.17

The Province of British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy is also at the planning table to prepare for improved marine spill response. According to the Coastal First Nations, “beyond providing a model for collaborative stewardship of marine ecosystems, it also aims to increase safety in coastal communities by improving emergency response capabilities through the Regional Response Planning pilot project.” This project will identify ways for First Nations and federal and provincial governments to work together effectively to respond to a marine spill. This advance planning work helps to build relationships and overcome challenges that exist due to different systems and expectations.18

A path forward?

The sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart demonstrated that a series of missteps by a fatigued crew can significantly affect the environment and the way of life of First Nations and coastal communities. What may appear as a remote, picturesque coastline, far from public view is, in the words of Chief Slett, a source of food, a “breadbasket for our people” and central to their way of life and cultural practices. It also illustrated how a community of coastal Indigenous Peoples has its own way of addressing complex technological and environmental problems especially when it comes to protecting the marine life that it is deeply rooted in its cultural identity and history. Indigenous Peoples have traditions of seafaring and will continue to play a key role in safeguarding these resources. The Heiltsuk are still angry at what they see as a lack of action by government and others to fully assess and compensate for impacts resulting from this spill. They continue to pursue legal action and seek further environmental impact assessment.19

In a statement by Chief Slett on the fifth anniversary of the sinking, she said that “…our nation is still waiting for environmental justice, having been left to fundraise and conduct our own environmental impact assessment, with an estimated cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. While the support we have received from the public is inspiring, the ongoing situation where the polluter is left off the hook, and we – the victims of the spill – are left to do the environmental assessment and restoration that should have happened long ago, raises serious questions about the B.C. and federal governments’ commitment to reconciliation and ocean protection.“

The Heiltsuk Nation is also seeking compensation from the provincial and federal governments. “The B.C. government’s own Environmental Management Act, enables the government to make them pay, and yet B.C. has declined to do so,” she said. “The federal government also has a Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund (SOPF) reporting close to $410 million dollar surpluses, and a $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan, and yet nothing has been done. How is this possible? How can it be justified?”

Two claims are before the SOPF, which operates under the Polluter Pays Principle and exists to reimburse direct costs of responding to an oil spill. As of year-end 2021, both files remain open.20

Learn more about Who Pays for an Oil Spill

Beyond and outside of these various legal claims, many of the stakeholders involved in marine response and rescue – including the federal government through the Oceans Protection Plan and their operating agencies like the Canadian Coast Guard – have recognized the importance of engaging, working and communicating with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. They are also taking concrete action including stronger regulations and greater preparedness to prevent this from happening again. Whether an accident like the Nathan E. Stewart could ever happen again is hard to predict. But it’s clear that the Heiltsuk have taken measures to improve preparedness and instituted a response plan to ensure that they are ready if it does. And bodies like the Canadian Coast Guard and WCMRC have likewise taken lessons learned from the accident to increase their own readiness to respond.


1 A comparison of Canada’s major marine oil spills is available here.
2 Health Canada. Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit. (2018). Guidance for the Environmental Public Health Management of Crude Oil Incidents. P.54-55.
3 WCMRC have since invested in larger, heavier anchors and purchased more open-ocean boom than previously held in their inventory.
4 Heiltsuk Tribal Council. (2018). To look at our traditional laws. P.11.
5 Transportation Safety Board of Canada. (2016). Marine transportation safety investigation report M16P0378, section 1.4.1.
6 Bákvlá is a Heiltsuk word that means “to harvest and prepare food for the winter.” But its meaning is wider: it also means to harvest food in a good way, with a good heart and mind, honouring ancestral Heiltsuk laws. More here.
7 Heiltsuk Tribal Council. (2018). To look at our traditional laws. P.11.
8 For the Bella Bella region, the response time standard is 18 hours plus travel time.
9 Transportation Safety Board of Canada. (2016). Marine transportation safety investigation report M16P0378, section 3.3, paragraph 2.
10 The Committee include a knowledge keeper and Elder, a representative of HTC, a youth to bring balance and an urban member in keeping with the Heiltsuk view that all are one. Yílístis Pauline Waterfall, Heiltsuk Tribal Councillor and Knowledge Keeper, Chairperson; Yím̓ ás ⅄áλíya̓ sila, Frank Brown, Co-chairperson; Yím̓ ás Q̓ a̓ít; Arnold Humchitt Lanemraeit; Bessie Brown, Urban Representative; and Communications Advisor H̓áziɫba Saul Brown.
11 Heiltsuk Tribal Council. (2018). To look at our traditional laws. P.42.
12 Transportation Safety Board of Canada. (2016). Marine transportation safety investigation report M16P0378. P. 33.
13 Section 10 of the Pacific Pilotage Regulations describes the conditions that must be met to allow for a Waiver of Compulsory Pilotage for a ship subject to compulsory pilotage.
14 These areas are defined as Grenville Channel, Princess Royal Channel, Boat Bluff, Heikish Narrows, Laredo Sound, Principe Channel, Seaforth Channel, Lama Passage, and Fitzhugh Channel.
15 Government of Canada. (2021). Government of Canada and Ahousaht First Nation partnering on new response vessel to strengthen marine safety in British Columbia.
16 Transportation Safety Board of Canada. (2016). Marine transportation safety investigation report M16P0378, section 4.1.2.
17 More information here.
18 More information here.
19 A comprehensive Shoreline Clean-up and Assessment Technique plan was put in place at the time of the spill and findings were issued in the Unified Command’s Final Report on Nov. 21, 2016. As of Nov. 19, the report concluded that no oil was observed on the coast where the sinking occurred. That conclusion is disputed by the Heiltsuk and the Heiltsuk representative participating in the response. They would not sign off on that report as the Nation didn’t believe that adequate SCAT procedures were followed.
20 Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund. (2020). The Administrator’s 2019-2020 Annual Report Incident Summaries. P.136-138.


By Edward Downing, Director of Communications at Clear Seas.

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