Protecting Canada’s Oceans and Waterways: Voyage of the Vessel (Great Lakes and the Gulf/St-Lawrence River)


[ Narrator: ]

From an ultra-modern bulk carrier ship, carrying a cargo bound for Vancouver… to a crab or lobster fisher, tending traps off our Atlantic coast… to fishers, bringing in their catch off Kujjuarapiq as their community has done for thousands of years… our relationship with Canada’s oceans, lakes, and rivers is essential.

The movement of people and goods by water has propelled our economy and has shown us the importance of respecting and protecting our natural environment.

Text on screen: Voyage of a vessel: Understanding Canada’s Marine Safety and Security System – Great Lakes and the Gulf/St-Lawrence River

Responsibility for Canada’s oceans and waterways is one of Transport Canada’s most important roles.

Our focus is to prevent, prepare, and respond with several partners including Indigenous communities, Pilotage and Port Authorities, Response Organizations, and the Canadian Coast Guard. We’re proud of the work we do and our record of success.

International Marine Safety Regulations

Canada is signatory to many international conventions and agreements that govern how shipping is carried out worldwide.   

While international laws set the broad worldwide framework, Canada keeps a keen eye on every ship that is bound for – or departing from - our shores.

When ships reach Canadian waters, Canadian rules and regulations set a tight safety framework for all vessels.

Text on screen:

  • Canada Shipping Act 2001
  • Canada Marine Act
  • Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act
  • Collision Regulations

Let’s take a look at vessel traffic on the St. Lawrence and our Great Lakes.

[ Désirée Sauvé, Director General of the Oceans Protection Plan,  Transport Canada: ]

Hi, I’m Désirée Sauvé, the Director-General of the Oceans Protection Plan at Transport Canada.  I’ve been with the OPP since the beginning, and in that time, I have been fortunate to have seen for myself the strong dedication of our Government, Indigenous Peoples, and Canadians towards the protection of our extraordinary marine environment.

Handling 200 million tons of cargo every year, and stretching across 3700 km, the St Lawrence and Great Lakes are a unique and important part of both our shipping industry and our natural environment.

The locks and canals allow ships to travel safely from the Atlantic through the St. Lawrence seaway to key international ports in the Great Lakes.

Let’s track the voyage of an inbound commercial ship loaded with cargo.

Inbound 96-Hour Report

Four days, or about 1,500 nautical miles out from Canadian waters, all inbound ships make initial contact with Transport Canada at the Marine Security Operations Centre to provide pre-arrival information including vital information about the ship – its destination, tonnage, cargo, crew, and more.

Security Threat Assessment

This information is shared with the Department of National Defence, the RCMP, and the Canada Border Services Agency as part of a comprehensive security threat assessment.

Ships are also required to exchange or treat their ballast water. This prevents foreign organisms from coming in with the ship as it sails into Canadian waters.

24-Hour Report

Before entering Canadian waters, ships contact the Canadian Coast Guard located in Halifax for what is known as the 24-hour report. As part of this report, the ship’s master must submit a sail plan and report any mechanical deficiencies or operational requirements the ship may have.

As the ship gets closer to Canadian waters, it must also switch to low-sulfur fuel to reduce emissions, which improves air quality for everyone.

National Aerial Surveillance Program

Transport Canada’s National Aerial Surveillance Program is an essential part of Canada’s efforts to protect the maritime environment and marine life, while ensuring a safer shipping industry. As ships navigate along the Gulf and St Lawrence and into our ports, NASP aircraft monitor vessel traffic, identify oil spills and other marine pollutants, and may track the movement of endangered whales.  

Because ships know they could be seen at any time, NASP  is a powerful deterrent for ships discharging oil.

There is continuous cooperation between the US and Canada throughout the Seaway and Great Lakes given the contiguous waters.

Administration of the St Lawrence Seaway is shared by two entities, the Great Lakes Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation in the U.S., and The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation in Canada.

In addition, the US Coast Guard, and the Canadian Coast Guard each assume responsibility for different sectors of each ship’s journey.

Spill Response

Large ships entering Canadian waters must have a contract in place with a certified Canadian response organization to ensure they are well-prepared and can respond quickly should an oil spill occur.

The “polluter pays” system ensures that vessels share responsibility for oil spills in Canadian waters.

Coast Guard Monitoring Systems

Much like air traffic control systems, each ship of a certain size is tracked and monitored by the Canadian Coast Guard communications systems and Transport Canada’s Regional Duty Officer.  

The information about the ship, its previous ports of call, itinerary, and any issues or problems the ship may have is continually updated and is critical for the safety and security of all vessels and ports in Canada.

Marine Pilots

As ships enter the St. Lawrence and through the Great Lakes, local knowledge is crucial. This is where experienced marine pilots come into play.

These pilots are highly trained experts in ship handling and in the intricacies of local waters and ensure safe navigation throughout the rivers, locks, and canals and into ports.

Protecting Whales and Marine Mammals

Pilots and mariners also carefully follow the different protection measures in place to protect whales and other marine mammals when transiting through the shipping zones.

Ships can help track and monitor endangered whale populations, by reporting their presence, and can take measures like reducing speed or altering course, while ensuring the safe operation of the ship.

This is part of our broader commitment to advance marine safety and for the protection of the unique ecosystem of the Gulf and St Lawrence River.

While the pilots and ship captains work to safely navigate vessels, mariners can now also follow the movement of these vessels on our coasts for greater safety on the water

Transport Canada has co-developed a software program with Indigenous Peoples, coastal communities, and industry to improve their access to marine information and data in near real time.

Port State Control Program

Foreign ships may also undergo a Port State Control Inspection carried out by a Transport Canada Marine Safety Inspector.  In keeping with international commitments, Transport Canada inspectors will board the ship while in Port to make sure that it meets international and domestic rules and  regulations before it can sail to its next destination.

Once docked, the ship loads or unloads cargo before continuing its journey.

Whether heading inbound or out to sea from Thunder Bay or anywhere along the 3,700-kilometer route, high standards, constant communication, and strict rules apply to every vessel in the system.

Marine Training Program

Beyond our world leading marine safety and security system, our partnerships with Indigenous communities are helping to strengthen Canada’s marine economy and environment, especially in the development of a skilled work force.

To create jobs and further increase marine safety in Indigenous and coastal communities, we have developed a Marine Training Program across three regions to help underrepresented groups, such as women, Indigenous Peoples, Northerners and Inuit access marine training and job opportunities within the marine industry.

[ Narrator: ]

We’re proud to say that our marine safety and security system works. Despite increases in marine traffic, spills and incidents have declined dramatically in the last 20 years, and we’ll continue to improve as technology evolves and we strengthen our partnerships with Indigenous and coastal communities.

Text on screen:

  • Arctic
  • Atlantic
  • Great Lakes and the Gulf/St-Lawrence River
  • Pacific North Coast
  • Pacific South Coast

This is one in a series of five videos about Canada’s marine safety management system. Find out more at