Marine safety was a particular concern for those surveyed in British Columbia where discussion focused on increased shipping traffic along the coast.
"Many participants raised concerns about their perception the federal government was stepping back from its role in marine safety, based on their perceptions of recent very highly publicized cuts to the coast guard and lighthouses," said a summary of the research recently posted on a federal government website.
"Many felt strongly that if anything, the federal government needed to do more, rather than less, in this area, as they had perceived it."
The B.C. coast has become a battleground between the Canadian oil industry and opponents of two pipeline projects that would link the industry in Alberta with West Coast ports, for shipment to lucrative Asian markets.
Enbridge's (TSX:ENB) Northern Gateway project would see about 220 tankers loaded at the pipeline terminus in Kitimat, B.C., every year. Kinder Morgan's proposal to expand its existing TransMountain line would result in an additional 400 tankers a year into Metro Vancouver's port.
The possibility of a marine spill of diluted bitumen, a heavy molasses-like oil extracted from the Alberta oil sands, has been the main point of contention, and the federal government has announced measures to try and address concerns.
In March, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said administrative penalties for polluters will increase and marine response plans for oil terminal operators will be mandatory. All vessels calling into Canadian ports already had to have a contract in place with a private emergency response operator in the event of a spill.
Anne Legars, vice-president of the Shipping Federation of Canada, said marine safety is a concern in B.C. but less so in other parts of the country where oil tankers are already commonplace.
She said Canada has strict measures in place and the International Marine Organization is constantly updating requirements.
"Ships have never been as safe as they are now," Legars said Tuesday.
An international database maintained by the European Union tracks violations by ships, ship owners and ship operators, she said, and Canada has a rigorous inspection system for foreign vessels.
There have been very few major incidents, and the small number of minor spills have been addressed quickly, she said.
"The system so far has been good," Legars said.
Four focus groups held in Vancouver and Nanaimo came up with several suggestions to improve confidence in marine safety to support increased shipping traffic, the report said, including an air-traffic control-type system to guide ships into Canadian ports from 200 nautical miles off the Canadian coast.
Group participants also suggested a third-party inspection regime for ships, and more information on the inspection system for international ships.
They also said a disaster management plan in the event of a major spill would build confidence.
The surveys were conducted by Harris Decima earlier this year, and involved a national survey of more than 3,000 people, as well as focus groups held in eight communities in January and February.
Pollsters questioned the focus groups about several key federal issues, including changes to Canada Post to "reflect market realities," and federal subsidies for Via Rail.
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