How many spills will it take?

It’s just a small spill, it’s not so bad.

Now that last spill – well that was a spill!

You shoulda seen it.

The whole damn coast was a rainbow.

This? At least it’s not that much.

It’ll disappear soon enough.



But things like diesel, things like oil in the sea don’t just vanish.

The ocean is not a hazardous waste bin. It’s an ecosystem jam-packed with fish, ceteceans, invertebrates, shellfish, plankton, and creatures your wildest imagination can’t even dream up. Plus it even makes half the oxygen you breathe. The significant thing about the ocean is that we are all inextricably linked to it – with every lungful.


When we poison the ocean, we poison ourselves.

How many spills will it take to understand this concept?

Will we wait until they become normal, until the media loses interest because ‘it’s just another spill’? 

Will we wait until the damage is done? Until our kids grow up knowing an ocean void of life? Will they think it is normal to see a surface unbroken by great blows of whale exhalations, black triangular dorsal fins rising up before plunging back down?

How many spills will it take before we ourselves forget the wilderness we sacrificed for the sake of fueling a culture of excess?

Will we wait until our life support system (the planet) is too sick to function?

Heiltsuk Territory

The sunken Nathan E Stewart tug spilled over 100,000 L of diesel into the ocean near Bella Bella on the central coast of BC. Image: Tavish Campbell

Bearing witness to the diesel spill unfolding in Heiltsuk Territory last fall rattled me to my core. It was my role, along with filmmaking partner Tavish Campbell, to document the spill above and below water. Descending through a thick layer of diesel on the surface to dive on the sunken tug, I watched a school of juvenile herring circling the shipwreck. I saw endangered abalone cracked in half beneath the bow of the tugboat. In fact – the very reef itself was shattered by the impact of the tug.

Wolves I had photographed before the spill came down to the shores to feed in the intertidal zone on the beaches that framed the spill. Beaches that now stung your eyes and lungs with diesel fumes, inducing headaches and nausea as you walked along them even weeks after the initial spill.

This coastal wolf lives in the area directly impacted by the diesel spill. Image: April Bencze copy
Beaches framing the wreck heavily saturated with diesel and oil. Image: April Bencze

But it wasn’t just these realities that tied knots in my stomach that will never come undone.

It was the way the spill response unfolded that still has me deeply unsettled. It didn’t matter how many boats were out on the water, how many Coast Guard ships, large foreign companies deploying millions of dollars of resources. It didn’t matter how many people gathered together to clean up the spill. The diesel continued to pour into the ocean.

NathanEStewart.Oct22.HeiltsukNation.AprilBencze.25 copy
13 Days after the Nathan E Stewart ran aground – thick slicks of diesel still cover the ocean far outside of the area boomed off by spill response. Image: April Bencze

Sporadic bouts of reporters and media coverage reported on the statistics of the spill. Empty numbers quickly filtered in and out of the public’s mind. Ministers travelled from eastern Canada to speak to the coastal community directly affected. Promises were made. Apologies were made. Assurances were being given out like cheap candy at a parade. It felt like a big show.

All the while, the diesel continued to spread.

 Booms saturated with diesel frequently washed ashore as storms and swell rolled through Seaforth Channel. Breaking apart and contaminating beaches further. These were not cleaned up until at least 3 weeks after the spill. Image: April Bencze

I learned that there is no stopping the tide.

There is no halting storms rolling in and rendering any spill clean-up efforts useless. There is no calming massive swells that toss absorbent booms onto beaches like foam in the wind, breaking them open and releasing more pollution into the area. Spend as many millions as you like – it will never be good enough.

It will never be ‘before the spill.’

The Nathan E Stewart in one of the storms. Booms rendered useless. Spill response tied to the dock for several days. Image: April Bencze

I am not suggesting we do not try and clean up spills. We must – and the budget should be limitless. This coast is priceless. Marine traffic will always exist on this coast, and spill response should be ready to do the best job possible at a moment’s notice.

I am suggesting that the best spill response will still never be as good as preventing spills in the first place. As the people of this coast, we cannot rest assured that spills will be cleaned up. From my time documenting the Nathan E Stewart spill near Bella Bella, I learned that they cannot be. The damage is done, and clean-up efforts only scrape a fraction of the damage from the surface. Transport Canada admits that it expects only 10-15% of a marine oil spill to ever be recovered from open water. It is clear that even Canada’s world-class spill response is not good enough.

The Nathan E Stewart diesel spill two weeks after the tug ran aground. Diesel spreading past through the spill booms. Image: Tavish Campbell/April Bencze

As the people of this coast, we must make sure spills do not happen in the first place. That means saying no to projects that increase tanker traffic. It means heavily regulating how this coast is used and abused, and making sure it is worth the risk before we say yes to anything.

The wreck and the reef. Image: April Bencze

Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Territory

March 05, 2017 A fish farm leaks thousands of litres of diesel into the Broughton Archipelago. The fish farm had no booms to deal with the spill. Image: Twyla Roscovich

The recent spill from a fish farm in the Broughton Archipelago tied yet another knot in my gut.

For those of you who do not yet know – the Broughton is an incredibly rich area. It is alive. It is breathing. It is a hot spot for humpback whales, dolphins, orca, and marine life of all kinds. It is home to coastal communities. It is also being used to farm foreign Atlantic salmon. Fish farms are already leaking European disease into the ocean – harming wild Pacific salmon and threatening their very existence. Now they leak diesel and oil. Insult is added to serious injury. More harm is being done.

Diesel contaminates sensitive locations in Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Territory.          Image: Twyla Roscovich


Spill Response for the Burdwood Fish Farm diesel spill. Image: Twyla Roscovich

This coast is not a farm to grow resources. That is not the way the natural world works. If we listened – we would know. But it seems our culture is dead set on learning the hard way. I just hope we learn fast – before we have lost the very foundation all life requires for survival.

How much will we lose before we stop, look around, and feel the grief that comes with the death of a wild coast?

How much damage will we let happen before we stand together as the people of the coast to keep it wild?

Let it be no more.

Not one more spill. Not one more salmon farm.

Not one more drop of oil in our waters.



Get involved with the Broughton Archipelago fish farm spill:

  • Support the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Nation in the wake of the spill – they will be carrying out their own impact assessment of the spill in sensitive locations.
  • Contact John Horgan, MLA and ask him to go and see the spill on the ground. Spill response on this coast is an election issue.


Dear Mr. Horgan,

It has come to my attention that the spill response for the Burdwood fish farm diesel spill, owned and operated by Cermaq Canada in Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw territory, was inadequate and centred around protecting the Atlantic salmon in the pens rather than protecting the sensitive natural areas around the farm, like the rich clam beaches of the area.

After the inadequate spill response of the Nathan E Stewart diesel spill in Bella Bella in October/November 2016, and now this poor response to this fish farm diesel spill, it is clear British Columbia does not have the response capabilities to handle future spills from the marine traffic and aquaculture operations already in existence on the coast.

The proposal of expanding marine traffic on this coast (tankers, Kinder Morgan, LNG, etc.) should not be considered when BC cannot manage to adequately clean-up relatively small diesel spills that create lasting environmental, cultural, and economic damage to the coast.

Spill response in British Columbia should be a critical issue to address in the I am asking you travel to the spill site in the Broughton Archipelago to witness firsthand the damage this spill has caused, and speak to local first nations and coastal communities about how we can prevent this from happening in the future and better protect our valuable coastal resources.

Please make spill response on the BC coast a significant issue in this upcoming election.

Please contact: 

Bob Chamberlin
Elected Chief, Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis

Thank you,



  • Share everything you can about the spill on social media. Ask your friends and family to take action.
  • Ask your local media channels to cover it the spill and spill response on the coast.
  • Stay informed from local news sources like CoastCast, in addition to mainstream media.
  • Vote for a political party who will make keeping this coast wild a priority, preventing against spills and improving spill response on the coast for existing marine traffic.

    Support the Heiltsuk Nation in the aftermath of the Nathan E Stewart Spill

    Send a donation by cheque to the Heiltsuk Tribal Council to help support clean up costs and the Nation’s losses in the wake of the spill:

Heiltsuk Tribal Council
c/o Nathan E Stewart Spill Fund
226 Wabalisla Street
Bella Bella, BC
V0T 1Z0

•  Stay informed on the aftermath of the spill. It is not over – the Heiltsuk are still dealing with significant impacts in their community. Follow the Heiltsuk Tribal Council for  updates.

Resist Salmon Farm Expansion in BC:

Resist Kinder Morgan TransMountain Project Expansion in BC:

  • Join in rallies and protests to halt the project
  • Write an open letter to Justin Trudeau asking him to stop Kinder Morgan
  • Organize resistance to the project
  • Take the Kinder Morgan Challenge and share it on social media #kmchallenge
  • Educate yourself and those around you on what the project will mean
  • Vote for a political candidate who doesn’t support the Kinder Morgan project
  • Support legal funds to halt Kinder Morgan
  • Support First Nation communities who resist Kinder Morgan
  • Support non-profit organizations taking the lead on the resistance like Dogwood Initiative and Raincoast Conservation Foundation


Everyday Decisions

  • Participate as little as possible in the petroleum-fueled culture
  • Be conscious of the impacts of your decisions and shift accordingly
  • Live simply
  • Avoid plastics
  • Use less (do you really need that thing?)
  • Participate in direct action
  • Reconnect with the natural world
  • Protect what you love
  • Lend your skills to conservation initiatives
  • Vote with your values in mind
  • Culture-jam at every opportunity



Why do we pretend to clean up ocean oil spills? The Tyee






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