What I Learned by Erik Shoeibike: ‘The ocean was just incredible’

The July accident in Prince Rupert, British Columbia – which spilled 9,000 litres of fuel oil and resulting tar-like substance into the Pacific waters – is ushering in a fresh era of what the…

What I Learned by Erik Shoeibike: 'The ocean was just incredible'

The July accident in Prince Rupert, British Columbia – which spilled 9,000 litres of fuel oil and resulting tar-like substance into the Pacific waters – is ushering in a fresh era of what the First Nation is calling “cleanup renewal”, an idea he believes will make the ocean safe for all and transform the way Canada deals with marine emergencies.

Shoeibike lived through that week, when the cloud of tar-like substance carried over the east coast of B.C. when the tanker struck the reef caused the Los Angeles’ skyline to be briefly covered in a ring of oily residue.

They didn’t have much good information about what was going on. There was no National Disaster Notification System – it was [later created] – which alert people in Los Angeles that something was happening. I remember it very well – knowing there would be some immediate help on the East Coast. It was a very effective awareness tool.

There were many incredible stories of strength and courage on the first day: the firefighters braving the burning deck that was not stable, the people leading the cleanup. Some of the South Korean and Chinese seamen that volunteered – and especially the seamen that finally got to help on the weekend – those people looked like robots but were just extraordinary because they hadn’t been on a rescue ship before.

The clean-up was really a 21st-century version of a cook out. You come in, and then you clean it up. We had to do it quickly. Before I came home, I could tell there was going to be a significant cleanup. [The federal government] wasn’t able to guarantee the levee, or the survival of all the seals and mammals that were stranded by the oil.

There’s an awareness that we had a small incident, but the message is there that something that happened in Vancouver is something that can happen all over the world. And we need to be able to deal with something like this before it gets any bigger. When that passage of oil across B.C. was discovered, they built this pipeline to get it to Alberta. With the climate crisis, why do we need that? It doesn’t serve any purpose at all, so we’re going to do the cleanup renewal.

Getting together with the other bands was – and hopefully will be – an ongoing program. The scientists will work to figure out what the legacy is going to be – whether it’s the same or not – and what the health is of the ecosystem. The way that we manage the environment is just a blessing for it to have been totally clean and pristine before. The ability for the ocean to be so pristine, that environmentalist and environmentalist value – we’ve put in a lot of money and more to that area.

When I started the cleanup, I was afraid that the Calgary [spill], where there was 40,000 cubic yards of tar oil spread on the ground, would get into other locations. We said OK, we’re going to ship it off to Vancouver Island and see what happens there. But the oil washings stayed away from the land.

The sea was just incredible – from the beauty of that eddy that was located behind the ship [where the pipeline sprung a leak] to where there were completely white patches, so we knew there wasn’t oil in the air. We continued with the cleanup, and the Health Ministry came out and took control – showing up and cleaning up the beaches.

Today, a lot of people are saying “how come you didn’t work harder on preventing the spill?” We now know what we need to do. But how come we didn’t do that? We did keep working, but it was too late.

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