Vancouver Island Ship Traffic

Who monitors the Vancouver Island coastline?

inside Victoria MCTS

On Vancouver Island, ship traffic and weather is tracked by the Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS). Currently, there are three stations:  Victoria, Comox, and Tofino.

News Update on these stations

In the past, there used to stations at Alert Bay, Bull Harbour, and Triangle Island, but these stations have been closed.

Each officer works a shift of 12 hours. Normally, each communication station is staffed by three officers at any one time to monitor ship traffic and other emergencies.

Every station is responsible for a vast area of coastline as the maps below indicate.

Victoria_MCTS area of responsibility (dark blue)
Comox_MCTS responsibility (dark blue)
Tofino MCTS area (dark blue)

Why are these Marine Communications stations important?

The area between Vancouver Island and the mainland (including the gulf islands) has the highest concentration of pleasure craft in Canada.  Along with this, there are cruise ships, freighters, and fishing boats.

Freighter (credit: BCMCA)

According to the 2011 statistics released by, bulk carrier traffic has been increasing steadily, year over year. In 2009, the Port of Vancouver handled over 2,500 container ships including bulk carriers, freighters and tankers and last year 2,771 of these cargo ships arrived. Notwithstanding the oil tanker debate, freighter traffic is forecast to increase exponentially as more and more of North American consumer goods are transported from Asia.

What do these marine communication stations monitor?

  • Distress calls including ships that are faltering, fires on board, and oil spills
  • Regulate vessel traffic in shipping and ferry lanes
  • Broadcast weather warnings for boaters
  • Relay information from lighthouse keepers
  • Vessel screening to prevent the entry of smugglers

Distress calls and oil spills

Stations monitor Channels 16 and 70. Channel 16 is the traditional communication channel, which is no longer being monitored by commercial ships. Interestingly, Channel 16 is still being used by BC Ferries. From the Transportation Board of Canada report on the 2006 sinking of the Queen of the North:

At 0026, the Queen of the North advised Prince Rupert Traffic that the vessel was aground and required immediate assistance. At 0027, Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio broadcast a Mayday Relay on very high frequency (VHF) radiotelephone channel 16, indicating that the Queen of the North was aground, listing severely, and taking on water just south of Sainty Point in Grenville Channel.

More recently, the cruise ship Costa Concordia, which sank off Italy on January 13, 2012 used Channel 16 for emergency communication. From a transcript obtained by CBC:

Port: How long has there been this blackout?
Concordia: Approximately 20 minutes, 20 minutes.
Port: OK, we go back on (channel) 16. Keep us informed of the situation.
Concordia: Affirmative, we’ll stay on standby on (channel) 16. We’ll keep you informed.

New technology such as Digital Selective Calling (DSC) allows for digitally encoded distress calls that include vessel location and radio user’s registered information which functions like caller-ID. Recreational motorboats with VHF radios that are DSC equipped should be aware that mayday signals won’t properly be transmitted unless boat radio information is registered with Canada Coast Guard.

Canadian Coast Guard statistics show more than 550 “marine pollution incidents” in B.C. in 2011 as of mid-December, about 27 per cent of them level-three incidents requiring “cleanup or threat mitigation measures.”   The largest spill — 2,400 litres was from a pleasure craft at Port Hardy. Because the Salish Sea doesn’t recognize invisible boundaries, the Coast Guard is supposed to report oil spills that may travel south to the U.S. authorities as part of the Joint Marine Contingency Plan.

Lifeline for Lighthouse keepers:

Through MCTS, lighthouse keepers send weather reports, updated weather reports, messages to Coast Guard offices, and emergency messages both personal and for the public – e.g. distress sightings, radio relays from distressed public in boats or on land, fire reports, sightings of missing aircraft and boats, and their own personal injury requests. MCTS is the lightkeeper’s only link to Search and Rescue (SAR).

Tanker Exclusion Zone

A tanker exclusion zone (TEZ) was established off the Pacific coast of Canada as a result of the discontinuance of the Trans Alaska Pipeline Tanker Routes.   The purpose of the TEZ is to keep laden tankers west of the zone boundary in an effort to protect the shoreline and coastal waters from a potential risk of pollution.   The zone boundary follows the Canada/Alaska border to a point approximately 115 miles west of Langara Island, thence southward to approximately 73 miles southwest of Cape St. James, thence to 40 miles southwest of Amphitrite Point and thence due east to just off Cape Flattery.

The TEZ is defined as follows:

a line from 54°00’00″N 136°17’00″W
thence to 51°05’00″N 132°30’00″W
thence to 48°32’00″N 126°30’00″W
thence to 48°32’00″N 125°09’00″W

Loaded TAPS crude oil tankers transiting along the Pacific coast are requested to remain seaward of this zone boundary.

Tanker Exclusion Zone
Tanker Exclusion Zone

What are the concerns?

In December 2011, CAW Local 2182 issued a press release regarding the de-staffing of the MCTS centre in Ucluelet (Tofino):

“The MCTS station in Ucluelet regulates 12,000 vessel movements each year through Juan de Fuca Strait, many of them tankers loaded with north slope crude oil from Alaska and resolve 400 marine incidents each year.

“The Canadian Coast Guard in Ottawa has announced that they intend to reduce staff on watch at Coast Guard Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centres beginning in January 2012.

“This will place undue risk to west coast mariners by leaving inadequate resources to draw on during emergency situations. The centre in Ucluelet is responsible for advising mariners and coastal communities via VHF radio of tsunami alerts in addition to their live saving services.

You can send your concerns to Keith Ashfield, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans or sign the save the MCTS petition.

Further Reading and References:

Vessel Incidents from January 1999 to July 2009:

Freighter, Cruise Ship and Tanker Traffic Data:

Major Marine Vessel Casualty Risk and Response Preparedness in British Columbia: