Course:EOSC270/2022/Group 14 - The Impact of Commercial Boating on the Port of Vancouver's Marine Ecosystem

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What does the issue entail?

Background on Commercial Boating

Boating and fishing have a rich, extensive history, rooted in coastal cultures globally over hundreds of millennia; however, commercial boating in Canada has a relatively young history, only picking up in the late 1700s[1]. In 1867, Canada’s confederation took place, and with that came the added regulations on fishing gear, vessels, catch. At this time, the growth of mechanics accelerated exponentially many industries, and fishing was no different. The world began to see the mechanization of fishing gear in the late 19th century[2]. Accelerating after World War II, commercial boating boomed in Canada, continuing into the late 20th century[3], and employed new technology[4] such as sonar and hydraulics. Although it's widely known that commercial fishing is one of the biggest proponents in the destruction of marine ecosystems worldwide, the focus of the following analysis is on the effects of other components within commercial boating. Barges, cargo vessels, and cruise liners have an equally detrimental impact on marine ecosystems as commercial fishing does, if not more.

How Commercial Boating Generally Affects Marine Life

Commercial boating affects a host of marine life, both seen and unseen by the human eye. Benthic floral and faunal populations are greatly affected by vessels such as commercial trawlers and anchoring vessels that compromise the structural integrity of the ocean floor, create noise pollution, change sediment suspension, and affect nutrient flux; these are all vital aspects of a functioning marine ecosystem. In addition, the debris from these boats or their cargo often leaks chemical pollutants, such as waste-solvents or crude oil, for years to come. When exposed to or ingested by organisms in the area, the homeostasis of these delicate ecosystems is thrown out of balance and severely affects its inhabitants.

Background on the Port of Vancouver

An aerial image of the port of Vancouver located in Vancouver BC, Canada.[5]

The Port of Vancouver, located in downtown Vancouver, has had many occupants over the years, taking off around 1921[6]. It’s currently Canada’s largest port and brings in $1 for every $3 of Canadian goods, delivering 3.5% growth annually[5]. Moreover, it connects over 170 countries around the globe as an international trading hub and accounts for $11.9 billion in GDP in Canada.[7] It’s safe to say that the Port of Vancouver is an integral part of not only Canada’s but also the global economy; however, at what cost to the marine ecosystems we strive to protect?

Port of Vancouver Wildlife

The coast of Vancouver, where the Port of Vancouver is located, boasts a diverse range of marine flora and fauna, such as almost 500 species of fish[8], kelp, bryozoans, and a range of phytoplankton. One of the most critically affected populations are cetaceans, encompassing orca whales, humpback whales, fin whales, and more. There are currently 37 federally listed endangered species in the Burrard Inlet and Fraser Rivers, both areas falling under the Port of Vancouver's jurisdiction.[9] Harbour seals are another common sight in the areas surrounding the port, and species such as pacific cod, zooplankton, krill, and bivalves are all crucial components of an intricate food web system.[10]

How Does this Problem Impact Marine Ecosystems?

The Port of Vancouver’s Role in Releasing Pollutants

The Port of Vancouver is home to a variety of marine organisms, such as zooplankton, cetaceans and benthic organisms[11]. In the Port of Vancouver, over 3,100 marine vessels come in and out each year, their anchors disrupt the sediment, structure, and habitats of the ocean floor while their engines, propellers and thrusters cause noise pollution and release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere[11].

Immediate Local Impacts from the Port of Vancouver Activities


At the Port of Vancouver, for a ship to park in the open ocean they must anchor themselves [12]. The immense weight of the anchor and chain cause destruction to benthic organism and habitats as the anchor is taken on and off the ocean floor[13]. Moreover, in the Port of Vancouver there are a substantial number of storms and high winds that can cause the ships to move, resulting in their anchor dragging along the ocean floor, further destroying benthic ecosystems[14]. Just as anchoring has significant impacts on the Port of Vancouver ecosystems, the engines, propellers and thrusters release both chemical pollution and noise pollution, harming the habitats and organisms that reside there.

Figure 2: An infographic describing the negative effects of noise pollution on cetaceans. Specifically outlining where noise pollution is emitted from and how it affects cetaceans' health[11].

Chemical Emissions

In 2010 the Port of Vancouver released approximately 6,100 tons of sulphur oxides, 9,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and over 600,000 tons of carbon dioxide due to the engine emissions of marine vessels alone[11]. While both sulphur and nitrogen oxide pollutants contribute to ocean acidification, the main contributor is carbon dioxide[15]. When carbon dioxide (CO2) is absorbed into the ocean and reacts with water (H2O) it creates highly acidic bicarbonate ions (HCO3-), thus lowering the pH of the ocean[16].

Marine Noise Pollution

Despite impacts on ocean acidification, noise pollution is a more prevalent issue compared to aerosolized chemical pollutants to marine ecosystems[17]. In the Port of Vancouver, multiple types of ships will idle in the water to either collect passengers or cargo[11]. Noise emitting from the engine, propellers and thrusters when the ships are idling and moving within the Port of Vancouver augment the noise pollution and environmental damage[18].

Effects on Marine Life in the Port of Vancouver

In the Port of Vancouver, habitats such as seagrass beds and organisms such as bivalves and cetaceans are critical aspects of the ecosystem. Unfortunately, as anchors hit the ocean floor, they destroy seagrass beds that serve as habitats and food sources for bivalves such as mussels, clams, and oysters[19]. In addition, carbon dioxide, sulfur, and nitrogen oxides all contribute to ocean acidification, which decreases oceanic pH. A decrease in the pH of the ocean negatively affects the bivalve community as it inhibits them from properly forming their carbonate shells[20]. On the other hand, the noise pollution from ship engines primarily affects cetaceans who use echolocation, such as whales and dolphins. The underwater noise that is produced hinders their ability to feed, mate and avoid predators[21]. Despite these alarming facts, the port of Vancouver has made efforts to protect the ecosystem they coexist with, specifically regarding anchors, chemical emissions, and noise pollution.

Now and Then: Statistical Analysis on the Extent of Human Impact

Statistical Analysis

The Port of Vancouver’s (POV) vision statement is “to be the world’s most sustainable port”[22]. This section will compare present and past statistics to examine the extent of the various impacts of commercial boating on the POV’s marine ecosystem.

Atmospheric Pollutants

Statistical analysis of marine emissions in the POV indicate that commercial boating accounts for 59% of atmospheric chemical emissions and 65% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, therefore suggesting commercial boating is the greatest contributing factor to acidification of the POV’s marine ecosystem[23]. Note that atmospheric chemical emissions are constituted by sulphoxides, nitroxides, fine particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds, whereas GHG emissions refer to carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide[23]. The percent change in atmospheric emissions by commercial boating sources from 2010 to 2015 was calculated to be a 36% decrease in atmospheric chemical emissions and a 10% increase in GHG emissions[23]. The reduction of many atmospheric chemical pollutants can be attributed to the North American Emissions Control Area wherein progressive regulations regarding the chemical composition of marine fuel and strict emissions criteria in the design and production of commercial vessel engines are in effect[24]. Regarding GHG emissions, although a consistent annual decrease in emission intensity (kilograms per tonne of cargo) was recorded, it was unable to offset the increasing volume of GHG emissions due to increasing marine traffic, therefore resulting in the net increase in emissions[23].

Figure 3: A graph from the POV’s 2015 Port Emissions Inventory Report indicating past values and projections for cargo throughput versus atmospheric chemical pollutants by source[23].
Figure 4: A graph from the POV’s 2015 Port Emissions Inventory Report indicating past values and projections for cargo throughput versus GHG emissions by source[23].

Figure 5: A map of the geographical expanse of the POV indicated by port infrastructure and jurisdiction[23].

Anchoring and Underwater Noise

From 2015 to 2020, there was a 5.3% increase in the annual cargo mass facilitated by commercial vessels trafficking through the POV, corresponding to a difference of 7,267,270 metric tonnes[25],[26]. This annual trend is projected to rise at an increasing rate and has important implications for the effects of anchoring and underwater noise pollution on the POV’s marine ecosystem[23]. As commercial vessels await docking at the POV, they anchor at unregulated locations outside of port jurisdiction when all 28 POV deep-sea anchorages are occupied[27]. Furthermore, the largest commercial vessels trafficking through the POV utilise anchors that can weigh in excess of 26 tonnes and bury up to 6 metres deep in benthic sediments[28]. Although large commercial vessels such as tankers currently represent 2% of marine traffic in the POV, economic projects such as the Trans Mountain Pipeline have been modelled to increase that statistic to as high as 11% post-project[29]. However, while increased trade and novel economic projects directly correlate to greater anchoring disturbance and more underwater noise, voluntary initiatives such as the ECHO program have decreased the speed of 91% of commercial vessel traffic to 11.5 knots from unregulated and unknown numbers prior to the initiative in an attempt to mitigate the intensity of underwater noise related to propeller speed[30],[31],[32].

Future Trends and Sustainability Goals

Despite the forecasted rise in commercial marine traffic due to economic advancements and increasing demand for international trade, the POV has committed to sustainability goals such as achieving net-zero emissions by 2050[33],[34],[29]. While the technology and policies necessary to achieve these goals require more research and time for development and implementation, our next section will highlight the contemporary array of programs and policies, at both the local and global scale, aimed at promoting the sustainability of the POV’s marine ecosystem[35].

Solutions at the Local and Global Scale

The Port of Vancouver's Promotion of LNG Use

To solve the immediate effects of sulphur oxide (SOx), nitrogen oxide (NOx), and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the world, particularly Canada, has turned towards liquid natural gases (LNG) as an alternative marine fuel[36]. LNG is natural gas that has been cooled to approximately -162 degrees Celsius, placing it in a liquid state that is odourless, colourless, non-corrosive, and non-toxic[37]. This results in an alternative fuel that virtually has no SOx emissions, and reduced NOx and GHG emissions. In a study that followed a ship fueled by LNG on the Northern Sea Route, an Arctic shipping route, SOx emissions were found to be completely eliminated, NOx emissions were reduced up to 90%, and and CO2 emissions were reduced up to 63%[38].

Figure 4: Voluntary slowdown region for the ECHO program. In the transition zone, participating vessels slow down to 11.5 knots and maintain that speed in the slowdown zone[39].

Given that the international shipping industry is expected to transition towards using LNG on most, if not all, shipping routes, the Port of Vancouver is planning to implement a ship-to-ship LNG refueling (a.k.a. bunkering) service[37]. This will promote and encourage the use of LNG among the many vessels that pass through the Port of Vancouver. In 2020, the Port of Vancouver saw 2,730 vessel arrivals[40] and reported 14,000 tonnes of air pollutants and 115,000 tonnes of GHG emissions as a result[41].

Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program

In order to further protect local marine life from the effects of commercial marine activity, the Port of Vancouver has also implemented the ECHO program in order to reduce noise pollution affecting the local southern resident killer whale population. Killer whales, amongst other marine organisms, use sound to navigate, communicate, and locate prey, and the addition of noise from commercial vessels has been found to disrupt these functions[42]. The program involves a voluntary slowdown for commercial vessels passing through the habitat of local killer whales. A trial of this program found a 40% reduction of potential lost foraging time, indicating its benefits[43][44]. Vessels that participate are requested to transit through the slowdown area at 11.5 knots or less. To reduce financial risks, Transport Canada reimbursed ship owners that incurred increased costs from participation[39]. Given the success of past trials, the program will see a full-scale implementation at the Port of Vancouver in the coming years[43][44].

E-Fuel as an Alternative Fuel Source

While the use of LNG is an appropriate solution for air pollutants and GHG emissions in the present, it is not sustainable as LNG is produced from fossil fuels. An alternative that experts are debating to implement in the future is E-Fuel, also known as zero carbon fuel. This method uses electricity from renewable energy sources to create hydrocarbon products that are carbon neutral. The process takes existing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and binds it to hydrogen, which, after processing, can be used to create carbon neutral fuels like diesel and gasoline, as only same amount of CO2 that is bound during production can be released. However, the feasibility of this method requires reliable access to renewable energy sources and their implementation[29].

Additional measures

It should be noted, despite significant damage caused to the ocean floor as noted in previous sections, there have been no advancements in making anchors less invasive to marine environments. As such, research in this field is necessary to properly address all effects of commercial vessels on marine ecosystems.


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