Marine safety 101: How Canada’s marine safety system protects our coasts

Canada’s coasts are our playground, our workplace, and a source of inspiration and pride. That’s why Canada has a world-leading marine safety system to protect our coasts.

Canada is a maritime nation with more coastline than any country in the world, and Canadians rely on marine shipping for around 70 to 80% of the items that we use in our daily lives, like housewares, electronics, cars, furniture, and food. Canadians also rely on ships to export our goods to the rest of the world.

Canadians expect our marine safety system to protect our coasts and support the shipping that creates thousands of jobs and stimulates our economy. The Government of Canada works with the maritime industry, coastal and Indigenous communities, scientists, the international community, and all Canadians to keep strengthening our world-leading marine safety system.

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Canada’s marine safety system

Canada’s marine safety system is world-leading—built on more than 100 regulations, 30 laws and international agreements—and has led to a steep drop in marine pollution incidents since the 1970s.

There hasn’t been a major spill in Canadian waters in the past 40 years. Globally, major oil spills (those over 700 tons) have decreased steadily over the last 40 years. In the 1970s, there was a major spill almost every two weeks. Contrast that today when, since 2017, there have been around only 1.7 spills per year. This large decrease has happened despite the fact that more oil than ever before is being moved by water, and vessels are getting larger and can carry more oil onboard.

Many national and international safety regulations have contributed to this decline, like:

  • aerial surveillance planes that can detect as little as one millilitre of oil on water
  • tug escorts
  • marine pilots
  • requirements for double-hulled tankers, and
  • an international Port State Control inspection regime

Canada’s marine safety regime is governed by Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, and our science partners at Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. We work together to maintain the marine safety system. Because marine shipping, by its nature, is an international activity, there are also international regulations that are applied to Canadian vessels and waterways.

What happens when a ship enters Canadian waters?


When ships enter Canadian waters, they must follow strict regulations. As they approach and enter Canadian waters, all vessels have to report where they’re going, what they’re carrying, and any issues with their navigation equipment. If there is any dangerous or polluting cargo on board, they must have an oil pollution emergency plan on board to address any potential oil spills.

Transport Canada keeps an eye on these vessels through the National Aerial Surveillance Program with planes that can spot illegal discharges and even oil spills as small as just under a litre. We also use satellites to watch for spills.

Buoys, markers, beacons and lights mark obstructions and shipping routes. Some even make sounds to alert crews. Ships have a range of technologies on board to ensure safe navigation, like radar, depth sounders, electronic charting and satellite navigation systems. In addition, the crew members must be properly trained and qualified.

Tug escorts move ships through challenging areas and in areas where navigation is busier and more hazardous, experienced, specially licensed marine pilots board ships to navigate harbours and busy waterways. When ships reach their destination, Transport Canada inspectors board many foreign vessels to inspect them and make sure they’re operating safely and following Canadian and international laws. If issues are found, we take action which can include detaining the ship and/or fixing issues before the ship can leave Canadian waters.

What happens when oil spills in Canadian waters?


When a spill occurs, the polluter is always responsible for the clean-up. That's why Transport Canada requires some classes of vessels and oil handling facilities in our waters to have emergency procedures in place. They must also have an arrangement with a certified response organization in case an accident occurs.

If a spill occurs, National Aerial Surveillance Program planes fly over to determine how much oil is on the water. The Canadian Coast Guard is Canada's on-water lead to make sure that all marine oil spills in Canadian waters are dealt with appropriately.

The polluter pays for cleanup, and often relies on response organizations, certified by Transport Canada, to clean up spills. These organizations use special technology and equipment to contain the oil and remove it from the water. This helps stop spills from reaching the shore.

If the source of a spill is unknown, or the vessel operator is unable or unwilling to respond, the Coast Guard assumes responsibility for the cleanup.

Every reported spill is investigated to find its cause.

Who pays for a ship-source oil spill?


In Canada, the polluter pays. Even if pollution is accidental, the ship owner is responsible for paying to cover any damages resulting from the spill.

Other compensation, funded by industry, is also available. Compensation for spills from oil tankers is provided by ship-owners and the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds.The ship-owner and international funds can provide up to $1.37 billion. For spills that involve a ship’s fuel, the ship is liable up to a limit based on its size. The larger the ship, the higher the limit of liability.

Anyone in Canada who has suffered damage or experienced losses from any type of oil spill, from any type of ship can also file a claim with Canada’s Ship-source Oil Pollution Fund. The fund provides compensation for 100% of eligible claims.

How is Canada improving its marine safety system?


Canada has an excellent safety record and we’re improving our marine safety system through the Oceans Protection Plan to make sure that marine shipping continues in a safe and environmentally sustainable way. Investments made through Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan are making our waters safer and better protected than ever before.

The Oceans Protections Plan is the biggest investment ever made to protect Canada's coasts. Over 50 measures have been launched to improve Canada’s marine safety system, like:

  • expanding the Coast Guard with new equipment and 24/7 emergency response
  • adding lifeboat stations to respond to incidents near coastal communities
  • providing marine training to Indigenous peoples
  • making polluters pay more for spills, and
  • providing unlimited compensation for cleanup

Work on the Oceans Protection Plan continues with Indigenous peoples, stakeholders, coastal communities, and others across the country. We’re working together to build a marine safety regime that exceeds the safety and environmental expectations of Canadians from coast to coast to coast.