Mr. Speaker, I am happy to rise to speak to Bill C-48, the oil tanker moratorium act. A north coast tanker ban has been a legislative priority of the NDP for many years, and we welcome the fact that the Liberals are finally taking action on this issue.
The bill calls for a ban on tanker traffic carrying more than 12,500 metric tons of crude oil on the northwest coast of Canada. It makes exceptions for refined oil products, like diesel and gasoline, in order for coastal communities to be resupplied. Therefore, right off the top, the bill does nothing to prevent refined oil spills, like the Nathan E. Stewart disaster, from threatening our coast.
We are concerned that Bill C-48 also gives the minister broad arbitrary powers to exempt vessels from the ban, and define what fuels are covered by the act. We hope the government will implement constructive amendments to limit ministerial power and increase spill response resources.
I have had the good fortune and privilege of travelling to and working on the north coast of B.C. numerous times. I have been on that wild coast going around the eelgrass beds of Flora Bank when I was working on the environmental assessment for the Ridley Island terminals. I have worked on charter sailboat natural history cruises around the coast of Moresby Island, acting as a natural history resource person. For a young guy from the desert grasslands of the Okanagan Valley, those were really life-changing experiences.
It is truly a wild coast. I remember one ferry trip to Haida Gwaii across Hecate Strait. The ferry was taking green water on the third deck, the restaurant deck. Sand was coming up from the bottom of Hecate Strait, in the middle of the strait, on to the boat's decks. Large semi-trailer trucks were being tossed around on the vehicle decks. A lot of damage was happening. It was quite an experience. I have really experienced the wild and crazy weather that can beset shipping traffic there.
Not only is it a wild coast, it is really a rich coast. We heard a lot about the fish resource, especially salmon, from my colleague, the member for Port Moody—Coquitlam. For millennia, first nation cultures have relied on this diversity, this richness, and the local economy today continues to rely heavily on fisheries and tourism. I want to talk about the rich natural heritage of that coast.
The northern B.C. coast is one of the richest in the world. There are great rivers, like the Stikine and the Skeena, that carry nutrients from the interior to the coast, where they mix in rich estuaries with marine waters. Currents, like the Alaska current, bring up more nutrients to the surface from the bottom sediments of the continental shelf. The cold waters of the Alaska current hold high concentrations of oxygen. The result is a natural diversity that is truly unbelievable. It is truly amazing. This topic may never have been brought up in this chamber before, but British Columbia and the British Columbia coast have the highest diversity of sea stars, starfish, as many of us call them, in the world. Members may not have known that. When one is kayaking along the coast of Haida Gwaii in Burnaby Narrows, one can see leather stars, bat stars, sunflower stars, and many more. It is incredible. That is just one example of that diversity.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have marine mammals, whales, dolphins, porpoises, fur seals, sea lions, seals, and sea otters, the mammal that brought Europeans to the British Columbia coast and really fuelled the European exploration of the coast and the first contacts with first nations people because of their fine fur, fine fur that cannot withstand a drop of oil or the animal will die, because those animals require their fur to be in pristine condition.
For many years, the whales were harvested in great numbers off the coast. Their numbers declined almost to extirpation and extinction. However, there have been some good-news stories. The humpback whales and the grey whales have now recovered in a dramatic fashion, and we can now see hundreds or thousands of them over a season along the coast.
Off the west coast of Haida Gwaii down to Cape St. James and other places, the land drops precipitously off into the waters. There is very little continental shelf, and sperm whales come close to the shore. If people are down to Cape St. James and they look up at the big cliffs that go straight into the water, they see thousands and thousands of seabirds, thousands of common murres and puffins. British Columbia has three species of puffins, and the Atlantic coast only one. I am looking for some Atlantic MPs, who only have one species on the Atlantic side, but there are three on the Pacific coast. They are all there in British Columbia.
There is another little relative of the puffin called the ancient murrelet. I am going to go into birds and I hope people will find it educational. Half of the world's population of the ancient murrelet, about half a million birds, breeds on Haida Gwaii. This is a little seabird that eats crustaceans in the water, such as shrimp. They nest in burrows in the forest and the young go off into the ocean when they are just tiny little downy things. Again, they are very susceptible to any pollution.
At the north end of Vancouver Island, which is the south end of the area that this bill covers, is Triangle Island. Triangle Island has another species of seabird breeding on it in immense numbers, the Cassin's auklet. There are about a million pairs of Cassin's auklets that nest there. Again, these birds are indicators of the richness of what is in the water, and we have to protect them. There are albatrosses that come from Hawaii to feed on the B.C. coast and then go back to Hawaii to feed their young.
I would like to switch gears now and talk about the history of this oil tanker moratorium. In the late 1960s there was actually oil drilling off the B.C. coast, but in 1969 there was a big blowout at Santa Barbara that sent shockwaves through the industry, and drilling was stopped. Facing that threat and the new shipments of oil coming south from Alaska, in 1972 the federal government instituted a moratorium on oil tankers off the northern B.C. coast, but it was never put into law. This is the first attempt to do that.
Plans for drilling rose to the surface again in the 1980s, but two incidents put an end to those plans. One was the Nestucca barge, which collided with its own tug off the coast of Washington just before Christmas in 1988 and spilled about a million litres of bunker C. That oil from the central Washington coast spread north and covered the entire west coast of Vancouver Island all the way down into Oregon, about 1,000 kilometres of coast. The Nestucca spilled less than one-tenth of the amount of the limit that we are talking about here today in this bill.
Not many people have heard of the Nestucca, because three months later the Exxon Valdez went down in southeastern Alaska, spilling 40 million litres of oil. That disaster killed 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 seals, and 250 eagles. The Alaska coast has never been the same.
We can see, therefore, why many British Columbians are concerned about repeated plans for bulk oil transport along the B.C. coast. The tourism industry there is worth more than $780 million a year and creates more than 40,000 jobs. Fishery is also key for the local economy, with $100 million input into the economy from that industry. There are 2,500 people working in the fishery and more in processing. Therefore, I am happy to support Bill C-48. It would put into law a policy that has been in place for almost half a century. The NDP has supported the moratorium through those years.
As I mentioned before, we are concerned about several aspects of the legislation. First is the limit of 12,500 tonnes of oil allowed for community and industry supply. The vessels that supply these communities are now well under 1,000 tonnes in size, so it is unclear why such a high limit was put in place. We would like to see that lowered significantly.
Second, we are concerned about the amount of ministerial discretion in this bill, which would allow the minister to exempt vessels and define what fuels are covered.
However, we will continue to support the bill, as it is a step in the right direction that protects the British Columbia coast.