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The Truth About St. Lawrence River's Shipping Activities

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In recent weeks, environmental groups have published two reports to express their fear that the St. Lawrence River is becoming a high-risk area due, in particular, to commercial shipping activities. To support their arguments, they refer, among other things, to shipping accidents that occurred elsewhere in the world, years ago. These groups certainly have every right to voice their fears with regard to certain economic activities. However, given their insistence on the scientific nature of their documents, I feel it is necessary to rectify some of the "facts" they cite, which, unfortunately, are neither true nor up-to-date.

Increase in traffic

The reports indicate that shipping traffic on the St. Lawrence has increased considerably over the past few years. This is not so. Official statistics show that, in 2005, 4793 vessels transited the River. This number dropped to 4748 in 2014. While there are, in fact, annual variations in shipping traffic, clearly we are far from the spectacular upswing referred to.

Ship size

Information circulating in recent months holds that ships on the St. Lawrence are getting bigger and bigger. Allow me to point out that, despite erroneous media reports, not a single super oil tanker has travelled here. It is true, however, that larger vessels have been authorized to navigate the River. This authorization was granted following a risk analysis whose recommendations were presented in public consultations during which no objections were raised. The recommendations were then implemented in keeping with a series of requirements dictated by Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard. This information is public and easily accessible on the Canadian Coast Guard website.

Shipping regulations

Over and above the new requirements imposed on larger tonnage vessels, it is important to remember that commercial navigation is a highly regulated mode of transport. In addition to national regulatory requirements (reinforced by comprehensive, regular inspections), international conventions also apply here since Canada is a member of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The IMO is the United Nations specialized agency (170 member states) responsible for adopting shipping safety and security standards and preventing marine pollution by ships and port facilities.

Good practices implemented by the industry

The maritime industry has implemented good practices which have, unfortunately, not been mentioned in these reports or the media. For example:

  • A sustainable navigation strategy that seeks to harmonize navigation practices with protection of St. Lawrence River ecosystems.
  • Green Marine--a continuously improving voluntary program set up by the maritime industry to improve its environmental record and targeting priority issues that could impact the environment.
  • A voluntary speed reduction measure for commercial ships, designed to limit navigation's impact on riverbank erosion. Initiated in 2000, these guidelines have been widely observed since their adoption. Currently, the compliance rate borders on 98 per cent (proven compliance through monthly readings by the Canadian Coast Guard).
  • A voluntary speed reduction measure to attenuate the risk of collision with marine mammals.

SODES' mission is to "Protect and promote the economic interests of the St. Lawrence maritime community from a sustainable development perspective." Currently, it seems that some people would have us believe that the interests of economic players are diametrically opposed to environmental protection and sustainable development. Despite its unequalled environmental performance, marine transport is accused of causing impacts for which it is not solely responsible.

Using worst-case scenarios to implement the necessary prevention tools is certainly a prerogative. It is what the industry does. Taking only disasters into account to alarm the public without having to prove one's allegations is an entirely different matter. We do well to doubt the objectivity of an argument when the only hypothesis studied is major incidents, ignoring any measures implemented to avoid them. Would it not be more useful to support good practices rather than glossing over them? This way, we could encourage other sectors to follow suit in working towards them.

Is it still possible to have domestic economic activity that is not deemed impossible to reconcile with sustainable development imperatives? To my mind, we need to remember the three elements that constitute sustainable development: maintain environmental integrity, ensure social equity and target economic efficiency. We will achieve this goal if we work together, based on accurate information.


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