Preparedness and response for ship-source oil spills

The Canadian Coast Guard leads the response to ship-source oil spills in Canadian waters, including the Arctic. It works with Transport Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, response organizations and other agencies to reduce pollution from ships.

Learn how to report a spill.

Find out more on this page about what happens if a spill occurs, and about measures to increase Canada's preparedness and response.

On this page

What happens if there is a spill from a ship

Polluters are liable for paying for spills from their vessels. Vessel operators must have oil pollution emergency plans on board. Vessels travelling south of 60 degrees north latitude must also have a contract with an oil spill response company (response organization) certified by Transport Canada.

A response organization contracted by the vessel operator usually does the cleanup. The oil transport industry funds these private businesses that have spill-cleanup equipment placed in key areas along Canada's coasts.

The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) takes over the spill response if the polluter is unknown, or is unable or unwilling to respond. The CCG has environmental response barges to transport personnel and equipment, such as skimmers and booms, to respond to spills. The CCG can also directly hire a private response organization to do the cleanup.

When a spill crosses international borders

Canada has international agreements in place to call for help from other nations in the case of a large spill, or one that crosses international borders.

Incident Command System

The CCG is adopting the Incident Command System to enable a more effective response to a major spill. The Incident Command System is an internationally-accepted emergency management system used for emergency response operations. It allows the CCG to:

  • work better with other emergency responders
  • engage stakeholders in a predictable, structured way
  • launch coordinated responses to incidents

Canada's Oil Spill Preparedness and Prevention Regime

Transport Canada is the lead federal agency for regulating preparedness and response to ship-source oil spills. It works with other government entities and industry in Canada's Oil Spill Preparedness and Prevention Regime, which provides the framework for establishing guidelines and regulatory structure.

Area Response Planning Initiative (ARPI)

The Area Response Planning Initiative is a pilot project that identifies how to improve preparedness and response measures for oil spills from ships. Area Response Plans will be developed to allow flexibility for regional differences in geography and levels of risks.

Four pilot areas were chosen, based on levels of vessel traffic, and service by certified Response Organizations. The pilot areas are:

  • Southern British Columbia
  • Saint John and the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick
  • Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia
  • St. Lawrence, Quebec

See also the map of Area Response Planning Pilot Areas:


The pilot Area Response Plans are being developed with the participation of local communities, Aboriginal groups, industry, and all levels of government. The Community Participation Funding Program (CPFP) has been created to help eligible Aboriginal groups and local communities to participate.

Risk assessment for marine spills in Canadian waters

In 2013 Transport Canada commissioned an independent assessment to determine the risk of spills, and to compare the risks among regions of Canada.

The study results revealed that Canada is at low risk of:

  • oil spills over 10,000 tonnes from ships
  • oil spills in the Arctic
  • releases of hazardous and noxious substances in its waters

However the study warned that even a small spill of such products could be harmful in an environmentally sensitive area.

Phase I of the study assessed the likelihood and impact of oil spills in Canadian waters south of the 60th parallel.

Phase II assessed:

  • risks of spills of hazardous and noxious substances in Canadian waters south of 60° north latitude
  • risks of spills of oil and select hazardous and noxious substances in Arctic waters

You can download a copy of the report:

A review of Canada's ship-source spill preparedness and response regime

In 2013 the Government appointed an independent panel of experts to study the safety of Canada's spill preparedness and response system, and to make recommendations. The panel has released recommendations related to both oil, and hazardous and noxious substances in reports titled: A Review of Canada's Ship-source Spill Preparedness and Response: Setting the Course for the Future, phase I and phase II.

You can read the full text of the reports from the Tanker Safety Expert Panel, and read details of how the studies were conducted.

Research on risk from marine spills of oil products

Environment and Climate Change Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have been researching the potential effects of marine spills of oil products, including diluted bitumen. They have also been studying ways to lessen the risk and damage from spills.

For more information see: