How a YVR-based red plane is fighting marine pollution


The aircraft is part of Transport Canada’s National Aerial Surveillance Program which aims to prevent marine pollution

Hundreds of oil spills have been detected in British Columbia waters over the past two years, thanks to a big red plane based at Vancouver International Airport.

The cherry red Dash-8, which is part of Transport Canada National Aerial Surveillance Program (NASP) – was transformed from a commercial commuter aircraft into a maritime patrol aircraft, equipped with observation stations, a satellite communication system, remote sensing equipment and specialized cameras – all in order to prevent marine pollution.

“Most importantly, we have the naked eye of our onboard observers, who are expert witnesses, and they observe, analyze, record and report marine pollution on a daily basis,” said Louis Armstrong, Superintendent of Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, addressing the Richmond News from Ottawa.

Last year, data collected by NASP was used to monitor the extent of pollution in the Nootka Sound region during a clean-up operation to remove approximately 60 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and diesel from the MV Schiedyk , a 146-meter freighter that sank in 1968. Oil posed a significant threat to the marine environment.

The NASP aircraft also provided situational awareness data to the federal government on the MV Zim Kingston last year and searched for lost containers during routine patrols.

The NASP was created in 1991 and is designed to deter marine polluters, Armstrong said, likening the program to police speed checks that remind drivers to slow down.

He said aerial surveillance is known internationally as “the best method of detecting an oil spill”.

“It’s a great way to provide information that we see affecting the marine environment to the people who are going to decide the course of action needed to combat it.”

There have been instances, Armstrong said, where the NASP was on the scene to direct the Coast Guard to an oil spill — only the Coast Guard couldn’t see it, even though they were “right in it.” “.

It becomes easier to see an oil spill with the naked eye the higher you are, due to the way light reflects or refracts, explained Owen Rusticus, regional director of intelligence, surveillance and recognition, based in Richmond.

Sensors on the plane also help it fly at high levels for longer periods at sea, Rusticus added, and can detect spills under a liter from up to 30 miles away. on each side of the plane.

The Dash-8 that can be seen in the sky today has been based in Richmond since 2008, patrolling the coast of British Columbia from the Washington border to Alaska, and up the Fraser River to the bridge of mission.

In the spring, when the ice melts and the sea opens up to shipping, the plane heads west to the Arctic, establishing a base at airports in the Yukon or Northwest Territories to patrol the Mackenzie River and Delta, the Yellowknife and Great Slave Lake region, the Beaufort Sea and the approaches to the Northwest Passage, Rusticus said.

Other Dash-8s search for marine pollution in central and eastern Canada, while an Ottawa-based Dash-7 serves in the North from July to September.

Patrols begin with a pre-flight briefing between the aircraft’s crew and pilots, along with monitoring officers and maintenance engineers to develop a game plan for the day, based on the weather, various reports received overnight or throughout the week, and previous patrol routes, says Rustique.

Once a spill is spotted, he said, its size and location is recorded using various sensors, photographs and video, and reported to Transport Canada, which will take over the investigation from of the.

The NASP will also report spills to the Coast Guard, Environment Canada or the province, so they can respond and clean up, Armstrong said.

On average, the YVR-based plane flies 1,200 hours a year, five to six days a week and up to seven hours at a time, according to Transport Canada.

From April 2020 to March 2021, the aircraft conducted 1,234 hours of surveillance in British Columbia, flying over 30,623 vessels and detecting 496 pollution incidents during these patrols, while between April 2021 and January this year , the Dash-8 performed 807 hours of surveillance on 17,269 vessels. , detecting 152 pollution incidents.

While oil spills are the Dash-8’s primary mission, they aren’t all the program is tasked with hunting.

Using the specialized equipment on board, NASP also helps protect whales that frequent British Columbia waters – such as humpback whales and orcas – and assists as needed in law enforcement investigations, search missions and rescue and humanitarian efforts, such as fires and floods.

Working with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Parks Canada, RCMP and Transport Canada, the Richmond-based Dash-8 patrols the waters from the western approaches to Juan de Fuca Strait to Campbell River, Rusticus said. , ensuring the establishment of sanctuary areas. for Southern Resident Killer Whales are respected and that vessels maintain a safe distance from marine mammals.

Following last November’s atmospheric river and flooding in southern British Columbia, the team was tasked with assessing damage to fiber optic cable lines that ran along some of the damaged highways.

The aircraft also carried out additional patrols over the Fraser River, looking for any impact from flooding or debris that might travel downstream.

“We built the system (on planes) for oil spills…but it’s evolved so much,” Armstrong said. “It’s been used for so much more.”

Another aircraft will be commissioned in the fall to help monitor whales across Canada. Drone technology is also being tested to help protect whales, map and monitor ice and oil spills in the Arctic. This technology should be deployed next year.

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