05/18/2012 11:48 EDT | Updated 07/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Mayors angry over federal coast guard cuts without consultation

VANCOUVER - B.C. mayors are slamming the federal government's decision to close coast guard stations in Vancouver, Comox and Ucluelet, saying they were taken by surprise on an important safety service.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said officials were caught off guard and concerned by the Harper government's announcement that the Kitsilano search-and-rescue station would be closing.

"There's been no consultation, nothing with our police and fire and rescue service, who are the default backup if there is an issue," said Robertson.

The next closest coast guard search-and-rescue station to the Vancouver harbour is located at the airport, 17 nautical miles from the Kitsilano station.

More than 1,000 coast guard and fisheries employees have received notice their jobs may be in jeopardy as the federal government implements budget cuts.

Three out of five coast guard communications centres in British Columbia will also close, as services are centralized in Victoria and Prince Rupert.

In Comox, where a communications centre will be closed down, Mayor Paul Ives said valuable local knowledge will be lost, making the waterways off the coast of Vancouver Island more dangerous.

"There's lots of islands, lots of reefs and shallow spots," said Ives.

"I don't want to be alarmist, but the same kind of discussions have been had about the closure of lighthouses. At some point, when you're cutting away what is perceived to be excess capacity, you're cutting into the bone of the services being provided.

"We all have to live with tighter budgets, but I wonder if the people in Ottawa really understand what they're doing here."

The closure of the Tofino communications centre — which is actually located in nearby Ucluelet — also angered local politicians.

"Continually, this decision-making is being dumped on communities without any discussion or consultation," said Ucluelet Mayor Bill Irving.

"What's really disappointing to me is there's a huge issue of tsunami debris coming up on the coast...and with the discussions going on about tanker traffic, they should be considering increasing the service, not decreasing."

Tofino Mayor Perry Schmunk expressed his annoyance at a government that was "supporting the Enbridge pipeline, but at the same time, removing that control centre."

Keith Ashfield, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, said the station closures are a necessary step to modernizing and consolidating the coast guard's services.

He said the consolidated centres will be updated with state-of-the-art technology.

Ten of 22 coast guard communications centres across Canada are slated for closure in the next three years.

The Canadian Auto Workers union said early Friday 77 jobs will disappear and as many as 104 workers will be relocated as the cuts take effect over the next three years.

CAW Local 2182 president Martin Gregoire said his members provide marine communications and regulate marine traffic, handling everything from distress calls to the management of tankers and cruise ships in Canada's busy harbours.

He said the closures in British Columbia will leave mariners without a vital safety link.

Allan Hughes, the union's director for the Pacific region, said the area represents half of all the search-and-rescue cases, and half of all vessel traffic in Canada, with Vancouver being the busiest port in Canada.

He said the federal government is "removing the eyes off the harbour."

The cuts mean the centre in Prince Rupert will be responsible for about 80 per cent of coastal B.C. waters, he said.

"So somebody in the Comox area that calls for assistance three years from now will be...contacting someone in Prince Rupert.

"Comox is the only location on the B.C. coast where you can see every vessel that transits north or south via the Inside Passage."

Confirmation of the closures comes one day after $79 million in cuts were announced, affecting about 400 jobs at the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

Note to readers: This is a corrected version. A previous version misspelled the first name of Ucluelet Mayor Bill Irving