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Clear Seas Study Highlights Limited Availability of Commercial Tugs for Emergency Towing on Canada’s Pacific Coast


Clear Seas’ latest research report aims to provide an enhanced understanding of some of the risks and potential mitigation strategies associated with shipping activity in Canada’s Pacific region.

Vancouver, BC, July 9, 2019 – A research report on the Availability of Tugs of Opportunity in Canada’s Pacific Region published by Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping shows that Canada’s West Coast faces gaps in the availability of commercial tugs to serve as emergency towing vessels for ships in distress.

The existing emergency towing system is based on a small number of dedicated high-powered emergency towing vessels or ETVs supported by so-called tugs of opportunity (TOO) or commercial tugs that are not dedicated to rescue services. Such tugs are occasionally contracted to provide aid in the event of a ship emergency due to loss of engine power, steering or other cause.

“Tugs of opportunity offer an inadequate layer of protection for the size and type of ships now transiting our coast and ought to be complemented with a dedicated capability,” Clear Seas’ Executive Director, Peter Ellis, says. “Our research shows that tugs of opportunity have limited capabilities to respond in severe weather and do not have the power to tow larger ships that are more susceptible to greater drift speeds.” Despite these limitations, Ellis is confident that the study provides new insights into risk mitigation strategies for a very complex coastline.


Another limitation of relying on the TOO system is the distance between the areas these tugs most often travel as they engage in trade (near-shore waters) and the off-shore areas where ships transit on their way to Canadian or US ports. In some areas, a commercial tug responding to a ship in distress could take a day or more to reach that ship, says Ellis.

The study supports the Canadian Coast Guard’s lease of two dedicated ETVs, the Atlantic Eagle and Atlantic Raven, under the Oceans Protection Plan and their current deployment and patrol areas. Ships in distress in Canadian waters can also call upon an ETV stationed at Neah Bay, WA in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The off-shore areas where the Coast Guard’s dedicated ETVs are present are the most exposed to severe weather and furthest from commercial tug routes. The more sheltered near-shore areas, such as the Salish Sea and the area near Prince Rupert already benefit from the routine proximity of many tugs of varying capability.

Read the report here. Please note that the French version of the report will be available in August.


Clear Seas is a not-for-profit independent research centre that provides impartial information on marine shipping in Canada to policy makers and the public. Its mandate is to initiate and interpret research, analyze policies, identify best practices, share information and facilitate dialogue. Clear Seas is equally funded by Transport Canada, Alberta Energy and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. In order to remain independent and impartial, Clear Seas operates at arm’s length from its funders. The organization’s research agenda is defined internally in response to current issues, reviewed by a research advisory committee, and approved by a board of directors. Clear Seas collaborates with Indigenous groups, stakeholders and experts to identify knowledge gaps, share results of existing studies, and facilitate new research to ensure decision makers have access to accurate, up-to-date information. All reports and findings are available at


Goal of the Study

  • The analysis seeks to answer the following research question: What is the availability and distribution of tugs of opportunity to assist disabled ships in Canada’s Pacific region?
  • This project is intended to illustrate the current state of vessel traffic in Canadian waters and identify areas of heightened sensitivity to such vessel traffic to support decision-making and possible risk mitigation measures.
  • This report is one component in Clear Seas’ Marine Transportation Corridors initiative, building on previous work analyzing drift speeds for a range of different vessel types known to trade in Canadian waters, the routing and types of vessels transiting Canada’s Pacific coast, and the necessary capacity required for an emergency towing response for the largest vessels.


  • Automatic identification system (AIS) data from 2016 were used to identify the tugs present in Canada’s Pacific Region. Because tug traffic patterns remain relatively consistent from year to year, the results from 2016 represent typical tug activity.
  • Each tug’s location and route were determined from AIS data and its capability was established based on its bollard pull, established from AIS data, research, or linear regression based on the tug’s horsepower.
  • This study was conducted before the 2019 deliveries of new escort tugs Orca and Grizzly to Vancouver, and Tsimshian Warrior to Prince Rupert. These newly-built tugs replace older tugs and each has a bollard pull greater than 80 metric tonnes, expanding overall fleet capability. However, it is assessed that these new tugs do not materially affect the conclusions of this report.

Series of Studies

  • Clear Seas’ next phase of work in the Marine Transportation Corridors project will build upon the work completed to date by providing a multi-year analysis of ship traffic in Pacific coastal waters and by identifying areas on the Pacific coast that are sensitive to oil spills.
  • The combined results of these projects will aim to provide an enhanced understanding of some of the risks and potential mitigation strategies associated with shipping activity in Canada’s Pacific region.


View Report


Media Contact:

Edward Downing
Director of Communications
Tel.: (604) 408-1648 ext. 106 or cell (604) 817-3058

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