Eye in the sky nabs polluters


On August 23, 2005, the Dutch cargo ship Project Europa, on its way to Montreal from Spain, dumped 40 litres of oil into waters off the coast of Newfoundland. Unfortunately for the captain and his crew, the discharge was detected by a Government of Canada marine pollution surveillance aircraft tracking the area.

Two days later, the vessel was boarded by officials in Trois Rivieres, Que. The investigation uncovered evidence that workers on the ship had in fact thrown overboard water that contained oil. Nearly two years later, the vessel’s operators pleaded guilty in a provincial court and were fined $70,000.

The incident represented a common occurrence in Canadian waters: The illegal dumping of toxic substances that end up killing about 300,000 seabirds every year. That’s equivalent to the number of birds killed in the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989, according to Rob Rangeley, vice-president of the World Wildlife Fund’s Atlantic Canada Region.

“This is chronic oil pollution,” he said. ”And the thing is, it’s all preventable.”

While justice was served in the case of the Project Europa, most examples of illegal discharges do not come to a similar conclusion. Transport Canada is hoping to change that with the introduction of a new piece of air surveillance technology that will drastically improve officials’ ability to catch these high-seas hooligans.

Late last year, the federal department officially launched a Dash 8 aircraft fully equipped with a Maritime Surveillance System 6000 (MSS 6000), which will enable the plane to cover a much wider swath of water, and for a longer period of time.

The practice of looking for maritime pollution perpetrators has been carried out by the government for half a century, according to Maurice Landry, regional director of communications for Transport Canada, Atlantic Region. “In the past, though, they could only depend on the crew’s eyesight, which meant a distance of about two nautical miles.”

The MSS 6000, however, operates by capturing surface anomalies on the water, and can cover up to 25 nautical miles in any direction. Add to that the technology’s ability to detect problems during nighttime hours and through low cloud cover — two distinct barriers for previous observers — and it’s easy to see why hopes are high for more success in catching offenders.

“Our hope is that we’ll now be able to prosecute more (of them),” said Landry.

Canada has been stepping up its efforts in recent years to send a message to the international shipping community that dumping waste into its waters isn’t a good idea. Penalties are enforced under the Canada Shipping Act, and fines have increased from about $20,000 to the $70,000-$125,000 range.

The government is planning to fly about 800 total hours in the Atlantic Region in 2007, said Landry, which is up from approximately 200 hours in the past. “One hour is much more valuable than in the past due to the wider area (we can cover),” he said, adding that with weather being less of a concern, operators have more flexibility around when they can send the aircraft up.

One improvement that Rangeley is hoping to see with the new technology is a better use of the raw data that it helps to generate. In the past, he said, information gathered by aerial surveillance and a remote sensing satellite system known as Radarsat has not been utilized to its potential simply because the data hasn’t been used properly.

“To date, no one is using the data…to quantitatively look at changes in the number of incidents, which to me is a real shame,” he said. “Ultimately, you expect to see more seabirds surviving, but if no one’s measuring the effectiveness (of the technologies), it all sounds good, but how do you know?”

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