Tanker Safety and Spill Prevention

Canada has the world’s longest coastline, at more than 243,000 kilometres. Each year, 80 million tonnes of oil are shipped off Canada’s east and west coasts. On any given day, there are 180 vessels (ships known as “SOLAS vessels,” or those over 500 tonnes gross tonnage that operate internationally) operating within Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone (200 nautical miles from shore).

Transport Canada works in a number of ways to protect Canada’s waters from ships’ pollution, and to help ensure that marine transportation is safe and efficient.

The Government of Canada aims to prevent spills through regulatory oversight, inspections, and enforcement measures. Transport Canada’s regulations and standards fall under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 and the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, combined with international regulations established by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). These provide the framework for the department's comprehensive marine safety inspection and enforcement programs.

The Government of Canada is well prepared for and ready to respond to marine accidents from ships in Canadian waters. Ship-source oil spill prevention, preparedness, response and recovery are undertaken in a collaborative “whole-of-government” approach. Key federal departments work with private industry, as well as provincial and municipal governments, to ensure an incident is responded to in a coordinated manner.

Definitions note:

  • “Vessels” refer to ships or boats.
  • “Tanker” refers to a cargo ship fitted with tanks for carrying liquid in bulk.
  • “Movements” refer to every time a ship (or vessel) commences and ceases to be underway. Underway is defined as a vessel that is not at anchor, or made fast to the shore, or aground.


Website Contents 

Current Situation on the West Coast

  • There were about 18,500 inbound commercial vessel movements (domestic and international ship arrivals) in 2011 at ports located on the West Coast, and tankers accounted for about 246 movements (1.3 per cent) in 2011.
  • Oil tankers have been moving safely and regularly along Canada’s West Coast since the 1930’s.
  • Oil is moved mostly via the ports of Vancouver, Prince Rupert and Kitimat. In 2011, about 2.2 million tonnes of oil were shipped out of Vancouver. Much of this oil is transported in barges to and from communities along the B.C. coast. Varying quantities of oil are also carried on board container ships, domestic and international ferries, and other types of commercial and private vessels.
  • There is a voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone off the B.C. coast that applies to loaded oil tankers servicing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System between Valdez, Alaska, and Puget Sound, Washington. This zone does not apply to tankers travelling to or from B.C. ports. See the “Voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone” section for additional information.
  • Movement of tankers in the West Coast Inside Passage. Transport Canada implements a policy preventing tankers of over 40,000 tonnes deadweight (Deadweight: The mass that a ship can carry, representing the cargo, fuel, water and everything required for proper operation of the ship) from using the southern portion of the Inside Passage, specifically the Johnston Strait and Discovery Passage. These tankers are directed to the outside route for north/south transits. (The Inside Passage is a shipping route that follows passages between the islands and coastline of North America’s northwestern Pacific Coast. It extends from the Alaska panhandle to British Columbia and Washington State.)
  • A federal moratorium off the coast of B.C. applies strictly to oil and natural gas exploration and development, not to tanker storage or movement.
  • The only major oil spill in the last 20 years on Canada’s West Coast occurred in 2006, when the B.C. ferry Queen of the North sank with 240 tonnes of oil on board. (In comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled approximately 40,000 tonnes of oil in 1989.) In 1988, Vancouver Island was affected by a spill from the Nestucca, an oil barge that lost approximately 87 tonnes of oil, most of which drifted onto the west coast of the island.
  • The National Aerial Surveillance Program flew 419.7 patrol hours and conducted 3,893 vessel overflights in 2010-2011. For fiscal year 2012-2013, the NASP flew 549.6 surveillance hours, and overflew 4,153 vessels.


Current Situation on the East Coast

  • Although there are only 20,483 inbound vessel trips per year on the East Coast (11,434 domestic and 9,049 international), tankers account for about one fifth (3,890 movements) of these trips. This means there are 16 times more tanker trips on the East Coast than there are on the West Coast (246).
  • Over 82 million tonnes of various petroleum and fuel products are moved in and out of 23 ports in Atlantic Canada. The ports of Come by Chance, Newfoundland and Labrador, Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia, and Saint John, New Brunswick, account for almost 94 per cent of all the crude oil and petroleum products moved.
  • Twenty-five million tonnes of crude oil and various petroleum products are moved in and out of Quebec’s 39 ports where cargo is being loaded or unloaded.  Vessels stopping at the ports of Quebec and Montreal account for 89 per cent of the volumes of crude oil and various petroleum products moved by ship.
  • The most significant spill off Canada’s East Coast occurred in 1970, when the tanker Arrow spilled over 10,000 tonnes of oil off Nova Scotia. This is about one quarter of the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez
  • The National Aerial Surveillance Program flew 1,490 patrol hours and conducted 5,326 vessel overflights in 2010-2011.


Current Situation in the Arctic

  • There are fewer than 150 vessels plying Canada’s Arctic waters each year, with tankers accounting for less than 10 per cent of these vessels.
  • The National Aerial Surveillance Program flew 230 patrol hours and conducted 459 vessel overflights in 2010-2011.


Annual Inspections and Port State Control

Port State Control (PSC) is a Transport Canada ship inspection program that involves boarding and inspecting foreign vessels, such as oil tankers, entering Canadian ports to ensure they comply with major international maritime conventions.

The international Port State Control agreements, to which Canada is a signatory, require Transport Canada to inspect foreign vessels. Vessels that do not meet safety standards are detained until their deficiencies have been corrected.

Transport Canada has an ongoing commitment to target high-risk vessels entering Canadian ports.

Under the Port State Control inspection program, chemical tankers, gas carriers, oil tankers, bulk carriers and ships more than 12 years old undergo an expanded inspection of their overall condition, as well as the working conditions of the crew.

Inspectors look at:

  1. documentation (for both ships and personnel);
  2. ships’ structural condition (exterior and inside ballast tanks);
  3. watertight/weather tight condition;
  4. emergency systems (emergency generator, emergency steering, emergency fire pump);
  5. radio equipment and communications;
  6. cargo operations, including pumps;
  7. fire safety (equipment and drills);
  8. accommodation, galley, and living and working conditions;
  9. navigation bridge and equipment;
  10. lifesaving equipment and abandon ship drills;
  11. handling of dangerous goods;
  12. propulsion and auxiliary machinery;
  13. pollution prevention measures; and
  14. alarms.

In 2010, a total of 1,082 Port State Control inspections were carried out, including those of 473 tankers (these include oil tankers, chemical tankers, gas carriers and tankers carrying other liquids, e.g., water). Of these, four chemical tankers were detained. (For the reasons of detention please visit the online Detention List). The number of tanker inspections exceeded bulk carrier inspections by 30 per cent.

Inspection by location in Canada from 2006 to 2010 is found on page 6 of the Port State Control: 2010 Annual Report.


Navigation Safety

Regulations, voluntary measures and compliance activities, based on international standards and proven best practices from around the world, are focused on preventing tanker accidents.

Several regulations under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 help ensure vessels navigate safely in Canadian waters. Vessels must have the appropriate navigation equipment, follow navigational rules and procedures, and have effective means of communication.

For example, vessels must:  

  • follow international regulations for preventing collisions at sea, such as moving at a safe speed at all times;
  • have up-to-date nautical charts and, for each voyage, a passage plan that respects safe navigation and the environment;
  • be equipped with technology that, together with the passage plan, allows the vessels’ progress to be closely monitored; and
  • meet reporting requirements and respect vessel routing measures that also help ensure safe navigation. 

Navigation and Radio Communications Equipment

All cargo vessels in Canadian waters must be equipped with the navigation and radio communications equipment required under international agreements. Each item of equipment must also meet detailed international standards. To ensure compliance, vessels are subject to regular inspections and must have valid inspection certificates that show their navigation equipment (Cargo Ship Safety Equipment Certificate) and radio equipment (Cargo Ship Safety Radio Certificate) meet all requirements.  

Vessel Reporting and Vessel Routing Measures

For the safety and protection of the marine environment, the Vessel Traffic Services Zones Regulations under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 have established Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) zones along Canada’s east and west coasts out to the limit of its territorial sea. Shipping in these zones is monitored by the Canadian Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS).   Any ship of 500 tonnes gross tonnage or more must report to an MCTS officer 24 hours before entering the VTS zone, and report prescribed information about the ship and its intended route, including any pollutant cargoes and defects. Vessels subject to the Vessel Traffic Services Zones Regulations may not enter a VTS zone unless they receive clearance from an MCTS officer. This allows any safety or environmental concerns to be addressed before ships enter Canadian waters. Vessels within the zone must also make regular reports at specified calling-in points. Monitoring vessel traffic within a VTS zone allows MCTS officers to provide information services that help on-board navigational decision making.   Most large vessels are also required to be fitted with an automatic identification system (AIS). MCTS centres are able to make use of AIS to facilitate monitoring of marine traffic. AIS automatically provides information, including the ship’s identity, type, position, course, speed, navigational status and other safety-related information, to AIS-equipped shore stations, other ships and aircraft. These ships can also automatically receive such information from similarly fitted ships.   Vessel routing measures help address safety and/or environmental concerns arising from vessel traffic. They can be useful where marine traffic density is high because they help organize traffic or direct traffic to avoid a hazard or an environmentally sensitive area.   Developing and adopting a particular routing measure will depend on the hazard and will involve consultations with the marine industry, as well as, in some cases, international agreement. Routing measures include:

  • traffic separation schemes;
  • two-way routes;
  • recommended tracks;
  • precautionary areas; and
  • areas to be avoided.  

An example of a voluntary routing measure is the Tanker Exclusion Zone on the West Coast.


Voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone

In 1985, a voluntary Tanker Exclusion Zone was created along the British Columbia coast. This zone applies to loaded oil tankers servicing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System between Valdez, Alaska, and Puget Sound, Washington. The Tanker Exclusion Zone extends from the shores of British Columbia westward. The zone was determined by calculating the worst case scenario using the drift rate of a disabled laden tanker and the time required for a suitable assist tug to arrive on scene. This exclusion zone was established through joint discussions of the Canadian Coast Guard and the United States Coast Guard with the American Institute of Merchant Shipping before the National Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime was developed.

More than 300 tankers transit annually along the B.C. coast while respecting the Tanker Exclusion Zone (only laden tankers must stay west of the zone; tankers in ballast may transit within the zone). It is important to note that the Tanker Exclusion Zone does not apply to tankers travelling to or from Canadian ports.

There is a federal moratorium on oil and natural gas exploration and development. There is no moratorium on tanker operation in Canada’s western waters. Oil tankers have been moving safely and regularly along Canada’s West Coast for many years.


Double-Hulled Tankers

The Vessel Pollution and Dangerous Chemicals Regulations under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 require any tanker built after July 6, 1993, to be double hulled to operate in Canadian waters. A double hull is a type of hull where the bottom and sides of a vessel have two complete layers of watertight hull surface.

Tankers that are not double hulled are being gradually phased out. For large crude oil tankers, the phase-out date for single-hulled vessels was 2010, so such vessels can no longer operate in Canadian waters. For smaller tankers, the phase-in period for double-hulled vessels ranges up to the end of 2014, depending on the size and age of the vessels. The International Maritime Organization phase-in period for double-hulled tankers worldwide will be fully implemented in 2015.


Mandatory Pilotage Zones

Marine pilotage involves a mariner with extensive knowledge of a local waterway and its ports boarding a vessel to guide it safely to its destination.

Canada’s many waterways and the diversity of its coastlines and coastal communities make expert pilotage a necessity. Professional pilots need to know as much as possible about the navigation route along which they are guiding a vessel, including the latest charts and weather conditions, currents, subsurface characteristics, and the infrastructure of the ports they are guiding vessels to and from. They must be expert in the handling characteristics of the vessels they are guiding, be able to accurately judge vessel approaches into a port and be able to react quickly to any adverse, unexpected situation. They must also be familiar with navigation technology.

All tanker operators must take a marine pilot with local knowledge on board before entering a harbour or busy waterway.

Transport Canada works with the four Pilotage Authorities in Canada that are responsible for providing safe, reliable and efficient marine pilotage services at ports in all geographic areas of the country. The four Pilotage Authorities in Canada are the Atlantic Pilotage Authority, the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority, the Pacific Pilotage Authority and the Laurentian Pilotage Authority.  


Recommended Movement in the West Coast Inside Passage

Transport Canada implements a policy that prevents tankers of over 40,000 tonnes deadweight from using the southern portion of the Inside Passage, specifically the Johnston Strait and Discovery Passage.    The Pacific Pilotage Authority enforces a policy that requires tankers of over 40,000 tonnes deadweight transiting the Haro Strait and Boundary Pass to use two pilots and a tug escort of suitable size. Furthermore, Port Metro Vancouver has several requirements for all loaded tankers that enter the Burrard Inlet and Indian Arm. For example, loaded tankers must be escorted by two tugs as they navigate towards the oil terminals. There are also pilotage requirements (two pilots); training standards; transit windows; navigational aid systems; transit safety controls; and a vessel traffic scheme. For more information, see Port Metro Vancouver’s Second Narrows Transit Procedures.


National Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime

To ensure that Canada is prepared for and can respond to oil spills from vessels and oil handling facilities, Transport Canada works with Environment Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, four response organizations and other agencies to respond to incidents, help reduce and eliminate pollution sources from ships in Canadian waters, and continually improve Canada’s National Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Regime. The regime sets standards for response organizations and oil handling facilities. Transport Canada sets the guidelines and regulatory structure for the preparedness for and response to marine oil spills. The department ensures that the appropriate level of preparedness is available to respond to marine oil pollution incidents in Canada of up to 10,000 tonnes within prescribed time standards and operating environments. Canada is a member of the International Maritime Organization and follows a number of international conventions to reduce pollution worldwide, including:

  • the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), Annexes I-VI; and
  • the 1990 International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-Operation (OPRC).



Transport Canada chairs the TERMPOL Review Process, a federal government initiative that assesses the safety and risks associated with oil/gas tanker movements to, from and around Canada’s marine terminals.

TERMPOL is a voluntary, extensive review process that may be requested by proponents involved in building and operating a marine terminal system for bulk handling of oil, chemicals and liquefied gases. It focuses on the marine transportation components of a project and examines the safety of tankers entering Canadian waters, navigating through channels, approaching berthing at a marine terminal and loading or unloading oil or gas.

The review is led by Transport Canada and can involve other federal departments and other stakeholder representatives, as required. The review may consider any safety measures above and beyond existing regulations to address any site-specific circumstance.  

TERMPOL stands for “Technical Review Process of Marine Terminal Systems and Transshipment Sites.” This review process dates from the late 1970s when an interdepartmental committee reviewing marine pollution issues identified the need for a precise and reliable way to measure the navigational risks associated with placing and operating marine terminals for large oil tankers.

TERMPOL report recommendations are not binding, although the proponent can choose to adopt them. In addition, recommendations cannot override regulatory requirements under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001. However, Transport Canada and other agencies can use a TERMPOL committee’s work and report to help determine the need for regulatory improvements.


National Aerial Surveillance Program

Regular aerial surveillance is a widely recognized and effective deterrent that reduces oil discharges in Canadian waters because potential polluters are aware that Canada has heightened surveillance.

Under the National Aerial Surveillance Program, Transport Canada performs aerial surveillance over all Canadian waters to detect pollution from ships.

In 2011-2012, crews observed more than 12,000 vessels and detected 135 pollution occurrences nationally, with an estimated total volume of 1,014 litres of oil. There is an obligation for owners of vessels and operators of oil handling facilities to report marine spills to the Canadian Coast Guard.

Transport Canada may recommend that marine polluters be prosecuted under the related Acts, based on evidence gathered by the National Aerial Surveillance Program crew as part of its duties to help enforce domestic and international laws. Transport Canada investigations have led to numerous successful prosecutions against marine polluters over the years, with some financial penalties reaching more than $100,000. In the Arctic, enforcement occurs through aerial surveillance, as well as reports from government ships and reporting through the Long-Range Identification and Tracking system, which automatically transmits the identities and positions of vessels to authorities.

Larger ships (300 gross tonnes or more) that intend to enter Canada’s northern waters must report their position under the Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone Regulations (NORDREG).


Liability and Compensation

Liability and Compensation for Oil Spill Cleanup and Damages

Canada bases its liability and compensation regime for oil spills on the “polluter pays” principle. This means the polluter is always responsible for paying for the costs of an oil spill. If a ship causes a spill, Canadian law makes its owner liable for losses and damages.

There are several sources of compensation for oil spills:

  • Shipowners’ Liability

In the case of a spill of crude oil or fuel oil (i.e., persistent oil) from tankers, the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage makes the shipowner liable . The limit of liability depends on the size of the ship and is backed by compulsory insurance. The maximum liability for the largest tankers is approximately $145 million per incident.

If the amount of damages exceeds the ship owner’s liability, international and domestic funds provide additional compensation.

In the case of a bunker oil spill (bunker oil is used for ships’ engines) from any other type of ship, the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage, 2001 makes the shipowner liable. Again, the limit of liability depends on the size of the ship. The current liability limit is $88 million for its largest ships, and backed by compulsory insurance. Recently adopted amendments by the International Maritime Organization will increase the limits of liability by over 50% in 2015.

  • International Funds

Canada is a member of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds, which administers two international compensation funds for oil pollution damages caused by persistent oil. The first is the 1992 Fund, and the second is the Supplementary Fund. Both hold levies collected from the oil cargo companies. Combined with tanker owner’s liability coverage, these funds provide about $1.2 billion in compensation for a tanker spill of persistent oil.

  • Canadian Fund – The Ship Source Oil Pollution Fund

Canada created its Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund (SOPF) in the early 1970’s from levies it collects from oil cargo companies. The SOPF pays compensation for oil spills in Canada from any type of oil and any type of ship. The fund’s reserve is currently about $400 million. Its total liability for claims for any one spill is close to $161 million.

From all the above funds, a total of $1.36 billion is now available to cover the damages from one oil spill. This is the most robust and comprehensive system in the world.

Seafarers’ Certification and Crewing

Transport Canada continuously educates the marine and fishing industry about regulations for protecting the marine environment.

To achieve the desired level of marine safety, Canadian ships need properly trained, qualified and competent officers and crew. This requirement is addressed under both the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 and the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). Transport Canada develops and updates regulations, examinations and training standards for the certification of seafarers, including medical fitness; issues Certificates of Competency to seafarers after they have successfully fulfilled the requirements and passed examinations for the certificate; and keeps complete records of all seafarers who are candidates for or holders of these certificates.


Ships of Particular Interest

A specific Transport Canada program, known as “Ships of Particular Interest,” targets certain foreign ships banned from entering Paris Memorandum* member ports before they arrive in Canada. The program involves reviewing past incident reports and the quality of ships as assessed by third parties (i.e., foreign governments, pilots, crews, etc.), allowing Transport Canada to target its inspection to vessels that are more likely not to meet safety standards and regulatory requirements. This program, combined with Canada's Port State Control program, has been highly effective in discouraging substandard ships from coming to Canada.


*Several countries sharing common waters group together under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to ensure that vessels trading in their area meet international standards. Canada is a signatory to both the Paris MOU (full member since May 1994) and the Tokyo MOU (full member since inception, December 1994).




In May 2013, Transport Canada commissioned GENIVAR, a leading professional services firm, to conduct a Canada-wide risk assessment to determine the national risks associated with ship-source spills and to create a way of comparing the risks between regions of Canada. GENIVAR subcontracted portions of the work to SL Ross, a consulting firm specializing in the behaviour of oil and chemical spills.

GENIVAR divided the risk assessment into two phases:

  • Phase one examined the likelihood and potential impacts of oil spills in Canadian waters south of 60° north latitude.
  • Phase two will look at the risks associated with oil spills in the Arctic and spills of hazardous and noxious substances in Canadian waters.

Phase One Results

GENIVAR divided the Canadian coastline south of 60° north latitude into 29 subsectors, and calculated the probability and the potential impacts of ship-source oil spills for each sub-sector. They then performed 12 separate calculations for each sub-sector, to estimate the probability for a spill of crude oil, refined product and bunker occurring in four potential ranges of volume: 10 to 100, 100 to 999, 1,000 to 9,999 and greater than 10,000 tonnes.

They based the general risk calculation of each sub-sector on the equation:

Probability x Potential Impacts = Environmental Risk Index

The results provide a comparative assessment of ship-source oil spill risks in each sub-sector, relative to the other Canadian sub-sectors.

Note: The risk assessment was not intended, or designed, to provide absolute risk scores.

Probability Calculations

GENIVAR used international spill rates to calculate the probability of crude oil spills, as well as medium and large-scale spills of other petroleum products in Canadian waters.  They then used Canadian spill data to calculate the probability of smaller spills of refined product and bunker fuel (i.e., those under 1,000 tonnes).

To complete the probability calculations, GENIVAR factored the historical spill data against the volume of Canadian oil movements in each sub-sector, and estimated that a crude oil spill over 10,000 tonnes was low, and that a spill of this magnitude could occur once every 242 years somewhere in Canada.

The assessment also indicated that areas with the highest probability of a large spill occurring are the waters around the southern tip of Vancouver Island, the Cabot Strait, including southern Newfoundland and the eastern coast of Cape Breton Island, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River. The probability of large spills occurring around the southern tip of Vancouver is influenced by the volumes of crude oil transported to refineries in Washington State.

Since most refined cargo and bunker fuel are carried in smaller quantities than crude oil, the probability of a bunker fuel or refined cargo spill over 10,000 tonnes is very low. In fact, no spill over this amount has occurred anywhere in the world in the past ten years. GENIVAR found that the probability of smaller spills, especially bunker fuel spills, is higher.  On average, Canada has had two bunker fuel spills in the 10 to 100 tonne range each year since 2003, and one spill of refined cargo every two years during the same period.

While these smaller spills often have lower impacts, they could cause significant damage if they occurred in a sensitive area.  This is why it was important to examine the potential impacts of spills to fully understand the risk to Canada’s coastlines.

Potential Impacts Calculations

GENIVAR collected and analyzed data on environmental (physical and biological) and socio-economic sensitivities to estimate the potential impacts of an oil spill for each sub-sector. Specifically:

  • shoreline characteristics;
  • biological resources (including information on fish, marine mammals, protected areas, birds and reptiles); and
  • human uses (including tourism, marine commerce, water intakes and commercial fisheries).

Analysis revealed that the areas of highest potential impact were in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the southern coast of British Columbia, including Vancouver Island. Overall, data revealed a higher environmental sensitivity in near-shore areas compared to intermediate and deep-sea areas.

Overall Risk Calculations: Environmental Risk Index

Using its equation: Probability x Potential Impacts = Environmental Risk Index, GENIVAR was able to compare the risks for each sub-sector. The results indicate that the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the St. Lawrence River and the southern coast of British Columbia are the areas at the greatest risk from large oil spills. For the rest of the country, the risk posed by spills over 10,000 tonnes was much lower. However, the study also identified a higher risk of small and medium spills in every region of the country, especially those in the 100 to 999 tonne range. These smaller spills can also cause significant damage and are likely to happen much more frequently than the larger spills. 

These results show that Canada needs to tailor its preparedness efforts for each region of the country, as the risks across the country are different. For example, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Canada should be prepared for a spill of crude oil due to the volumes being moved (including tanker traffic to Washington State) and the environmental and socio-economic sensitivities present. However, in the Great Lakes region, where very little crude is being moved, there is a higher risk associated with bunker spills.

You can request the complete report at marinesafety-securitemaritime@tc.gc.ca