04/16/2015 01:40 EDT | Updated 07/01/2015 03:59 EDT

Vancouver fuel spill underscores gap in research after federal cuts: aquarium

VANCOUVER - A toxic fuel spill in Vancouver's harbour underscores a major gap in research and readiness because of federal cuts to science programs, says an expert with the city's aquarium.

Peter Ross said there is no cohesive long-term monitoring of British Columbia's coastal ecosystems. The lack of baseline data makes it difficult for scientists to assess the spill's impact, he said.

"We think there is a gap in terms of our capacity to understand the ocean, document our impact on the ocean, and consequently that renders very, very difficult our ability to protect the ocean," he said in a phone interview.

"These sorts of spills simply underscore our lack of understanding and preparedness for anything like this."

The bulk grain carrier MV Marathassa dumped at least 2,700 litres of bunker fuel into English Bay last Wednesday and the oil quickly spread to beaches in the bay, along Stanley Park and on West Vancouver's shores.

Ross said the Vancouver Aquarium learned of the spill through media reports last Thursday and immediately sent scientists to take oil, water and sediment samples. Aquarium divers have collected sediment from the sea floor.

Both the Department of Fisheries and the City of Vancouver have also taken water and sediment samples.

"There is no official clarity around who is to monitor the effects of a spill," said Ross.

The federal government cut millions in funding to Fisheries in 2012. More than 50 scientists lost their jobs, including Ross, whose marine toxicology program was shut down.

While the province shares some responsibility for monitoring its coast, it is up to Fisheries to monitor marine life health, said Ross.

Fisheries did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but issued a public statement Thursday that said it is developing a long-term plan to monitor spill effects.

It said fisheries sampling is underway and there has been no evidence of any impact to public health and safety.

The department said Tuesday it was closing recreational fisheries west of Lions Gate Bridge — six days after the spill. It said it took the precaution immediately after advice from Vancouver Coastal Health.

At the same time, it said samples taken from the waters surrounding the ship had hydrocarbon levels below laboratory detection limits and met federal and provincial guidelines.

The Musqueam First Nation issued its own urgent notice one day after the spill, warning those who harvest crab and prawn to stop.

The city said it expects to share results of its testing with health authorities by the end of the week.

Aquarium CEO John Nightingale said the facility has stepped in to fill the research gap by launching its Coastal Ocean Research Institute, which collects data on B.C.'s ocean ecosystems.

It also recently launched an initiative to test sediment and mussels for pollution on Vancouver Island's south coast. He said they hope to expand the testing across the province's coast.

While there are some existing monitoring programs, including those conducted by Metro Vancouver and academics, they are simply not cohesive enough, said Nightingale.

He added the spill has made it clear that a more harmonized approach is needed.

"We probably need a better co-ordinated effort ... in case something like this happens again."

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.