Guardians engage in oil spill response work

Four people sitting in a semi-circle looking at a map.

On September 17, 2019, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Guardian Watchmen were on the water conducting oil-spill response fieldwork, when they heard a call for help over the VHF. A pleasure boat had run-aground. As the closest vessel to the site, they sped through the fjords, arriving at the scene to find a wooden boat taking on water and listing at 45 degrees. The skipper and his dog were floating in a skiff nearby.1

The tide was rising, threatening to completely submerge the boat. “The Guardians sprang to action,” says Laurel Sleigh, the Marine Use Coordinator for the Kitasoo/Xai’xais who was with the Guardians that day. “They got the man and dog into the safety of the Guardian boat, lashed the sinking boat to shore, retrieved a jerry can of gas from the sinking boat and started making radio calls for backup and to locate a pump.” Then they took off for Klemtu so the man and his dog could be warmed up. Before long, the Guardians had returned to the site, pumped out the boat and towed it back to town safely. The boat and its passengers were saved, and no fuel or oil was spilled into the ocean. 

“This is why the Guardians are the best people to conduct spill response preparatory work,” says Laurel, “because they are often first on the scene in events like this.”

Guardians create Geographic Response Strategies for marine accidents

Unbelievably, all this happened while the Guardians were doing oil spill mitigation and response work. In fact, all Central Coast Nations are engaging in similar work in their territories, creating site-specific Geographic Response Strategies (GRS) to protect particular natural and cultural resources from any future marine accidents. 

A GRS is a document that outlines the initial response for site specific spills in order to best contain oil and keep pollutants out of sensitive areas. “Each GRS for a specific site includes one to two pages of details on the resources at risk and critical information on everything from water depth and booming configurations for different scenarios based on the wind, sea-state and tides,” explains Laurel. “All this means that before a response team hits the water, they will already have a general sense of how much anchor chain, boom and other equipment they might need at the spill site, and what resources they will aim to protect during the initial hours after an incident.” When a distress call comes in, the Guardians and other responders can review a GRS, grab all the specific gear needed for that site and head out well prepared to prevent disaster. 

The Guardians are the best people to conduct spill response preparatory work, because they are often first on the scene in events like this.”

Laurel Sleigh, the Marine Use Coordinator for the Kitasoo/Xai’xais

Kitasoo/Xai’xais identify 100 sites at risk from marine accidents

During two Areas of Concern workshops, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais identified over 100 sites in their territory where cultural or natural resources were at risk from marine accidents. With the help of spill response expert, Elise DeCola of Nuka Research, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais the Guardians were able to assess almost 30 of the Areas of Concern within a weeklong field season in 2019. Before hitting the water, Elise ran them through a day of training in town before accompanying them for three days of GRS assessments in the field.

“On the water Elise would help us consider different boom angles and arrangements at each site,” says Laurel. “It was a great capacity building exercise. By mid-week, the Guardians were considering all booming tactics and capturing the relevant field information necessary to create the GRS plans without support. The hope is that this process can eventually be entirely Nation driven.”

Guardians’ local knowledge is critical

Given the extraordinary knowledge the Guardians have of their own territory, it is not surprising how quickly they took to this work, says Laurel. “Their local knowledge was critical. They already knew the type and volume of local boat traffic and the impact of the wind, tides and seasonality in particular areas. They were able to quickly piece together how all these factors would affect a spill response.”

The Kitasoo/Xai’xais will continue this field work next season for the remaining Areas of Concern in their territory. Likewise, the Heiltsuk conducted GRS fieldwork in 2019 and are scheduled to continue in 2020, while the Nuxalk and Wuikinuxv Nations will begin in 2020.

  1. (From left to right) Keith Neasloss, Elwin Muldoe Jr., Victor Reece, Laurel Sleigh on the water doing oil spill response fieldwork in Kitasoo/Xai’xais territory.

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