One Year After the Nathan E. Stewart, Another Barge Crisis in Heiltsuk Waters

Heiltsuk First Nation says response to Jake Shearer fuel barge crisis highlights the immediate need for an Indigenous Marine Response Centre.

Heiltsuk Tribal Council

Gulf Cajun towing the Zidel | Photo courtesy of Heiltsuk Nation

Bella Bella, Heiltsuk Territory (November 27, 2017) – The fuel barge in distress in Heiltsuk waters remains anchored off Goose Island group this morning with a nearby tug contracted to assist with a tow. Crews are passing lines to the barge, but the situation remains precarious.

“It was a sleepless night knowing that the fate of our waters relied on the strength of just a couple of anchor lines holding the barge in place,” said Hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt. “This is just one more reminder of why Indigenous first responders should be involved in marine response decision-making right from the start.”

13 months ago, the Heiltsuk Nation was devastated when the Nathan E. Stewart, an articulated tug barge similar to the Jake Shearer, ran aground in Seaforth Channel spilling over 100,000 litres of diesel fuel. Refloating the stranded Nathan E. Stewart took 33 days, with recovery efforts repeatedly hampered by stormy weather. Following that devastating spill, the Heiltsuk began working with marine safety and engineering experts in developing a report that calls for an Indigenous Marine Response Centre on the central coast. Initial plans for the IMRC were released by Heiltsuk just two weeks ago.

“During the response to the Nathan E. Stewart, three Liberal cabinet ministers visited Bella Bella promising a world-class spill response that has yet to materialize,” said Marilyn Slett, Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation. “I am in Ottawa at the moment and I am eager to meet with Ministers LeBlanc and Garneau and with Prime Minister Trudeau as soon as possible to discuss this alarming situation and Heiltsuk’s proposal for an Indigenous Marine Response Centre. The sooner we can all start working together, the safer our coast will be.”

The Indigenous Marine Response Centre would:

  • be located in Heiltsuk territory where the majority of incidents on the central coast occur;
  • be staffed by trained crew familiar with the local marine environment;
  • be equipped with vessels and equipment expressly designed for central coast conditions; and
  • respond to 100% of incidents in the study area in five hours or less.

With an initial investment of just $11 million by January 1, 2018, the IMRC’s base operations, fleet, and crew could be in effect by summer 2018.


The Jake Shearer is an articulated tug barge or ATB, similar in design and capacity to the Nathan E. Stewart, which crashed in Heiltsuk waters 13 months ago. Unlike the Stewart, which was pushing an empty fuel barge, the Jake Shearer is pushing a barge laden with oil products. Combined with the fuel onboard the tug itself, the vessel is carrying more than 3.4 million litres of diesel fuel.

The Jake Shearer is approximately 900m away from Gosling rocks south of Goose Island. The waters around these shoals are popular fishing grounds for the Heiltsuk, and its rocks and kelp forests provide refuge for countless marine mammals including seals, sea lions, porpoises, and dolphins.

The weather, already difficult, is expected to worsen tomorrow with winds predicted to rise to 35-45 knots in the morning, increasing to 40-50 knots by the afternoon.

Additional information

  • Photographs of Jack Shearer Incident here
  • Learn more about the Heiltsuk proposal to improve marine incident response capacity here
  • Learn more about the 2017 Nathan E. Stewart grounding / spill here
  • Footage of spill / aftermath available here
  • Photographs of spill / aftermath available here

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