This post was originally featured on the National Geographic Explorer’s Blog. It was co-written by Megan Humchitt, and photo credit lies with Megan and April Bencze.
In the dark, early hours of October 13th, 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat and articulated barge surged south through the vast, turbulent waters modernly known as Seaforth Channel in the heart of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, in Heiltsuk First Nation territories. The American-based tug (also referred to as the “NES”) was returning to Vancouver Harbor after delivering nearly 8 million liters of jet fuel and gasoline to Ketchikan, Alaska.
Dawn on October 13th revealed the NES run aground on the reefs of Athlone Island, its crew being rescued off the sinking ship by the Canadian Coast Guard. Its hull was hemorrhaging diesel fuel and synthetic lubricants that would eventually result in the devastating spill of over 110,000 liters of contaminants into the Pacific ecosystem. On November 14th, 32 days after its grounding, the disfigured remains of the NES were finally lifted from the seafloor.
Athlone Island, where the tug and its barge ran aground, is a millennia-old harvesting site stewarded and managed by the Heiltsuk First Nation of Bella Bella, British Columbia, whose unceded territory witnessed the disastrous end of the NES that dark morning in October. The Heiltsuk Nation has fostered complex and sustainable relationships with their traditional lands and waters for at least a documented 14,000 years, and likely longer. The NES spill site, known locally as Gale Pass (at and around the ancient village of Q’vúqvai), was and remains a focal and biodiverse community harvesting ground. The impacts of the diesel spill on the Heiltsuk cannot be overstated; not only do the fishing grounds represent an abundance of protein that supports physical subsistence, but also the area provides a powerful environment to practice traditional harvesting, knowledge transmission, and support Heiltsuk cultural revitalization efforts despite more than two centuries of oppressive colonization.
Twenty months after the diesel spill, the Heiltsuk Nation is still grappling with the profound impacts of the social, cultural, and environmental havoc wrought those stormy early morning hours in October 2016. As a Conservation Scientist working at the interface of ecological and social sciences, and a partner to the Heiltsuk Nation in their work to uphold Indigenous management strategies in their traditional territories, I seek to understand these intersectional impacts of such catastrophes. While the environmental impacts of oil spills, in Canada and globally, can be measured by instruments of science, the profound personal, cultural, and communal impacts of the NES spill defy measurements by such instruments. Understanding these impacts, infusing their consequences into modern dialogues regarding the expansion of tanker traffic in Pacific waters, and working towards real reparation, requires sharing of the Heiltsuk lived experience, which only members of the Heiltsuk Nation can do. In poignant and eloquent words, Megan Humchitt, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation, shares her perspective below.
A Lived Perspective
By: Megan Humchitt
I knew something was wrong when I heard the VHF radio blaring in our kitchen upstairs in the early hours of October 13th. My father worked for the Coast Guard auxiliary for most of his life, and whenever someone was missing or overdue out on the water he would go out looking for them. He saved lives and helped many people from Bella Bella and the surrounding areas. He was able to engage in rescue efforts in any type of weather, day or night, because he knows our territory like the back of his hand. The loud voices on the VHF that night reminded me of those days past when my family and I would sit in the dark, worrying and listening for word from him on the radio. I went upstairs after I heard him leave in the early morning hours of October 13th, where I found a note that read, “oil tanker aground, Gale Rocks”. Fear gripped me. In that moment I knew that I had to go out there – I had to try to help protect our territory. I had to see for myself what was going on.
Gale Pass is a sacred place for us as Heiltsuk; it is a spiritual place, a place that has sustained us through generations. A place of history and culture. A place of present-day Heiltsuk. A place we go to harvest clams, rockfish, lingcod, halibut, herring eggs, and salmon. A place we go to practice ceremony. All these thoughts were running through my mind as we raced towards the location the NES had run aground.
The Ocean is a part of us as Heiltsuk people; we are intrinsically connected to it throughout generations. For as long as I can remember I have been out on the Ocean with my family; it is where I feel most alive. Our health depends on the Ocean. The mood on the herring skiff with my Uncles, Cousin and Husband that early, dark morning as we raced towards the NES was heavy, all of us unsure of what we would see when we arrived at the incident site.
Chaos. What we witnessed was chaos and confusion. When we arrived at the site of the spill alongside other Heiltsuk boats, our Heiltsuk Guardian Watchmen were already at the site with the Bartlett Coast Guard Vessel. The weather conditions that day were moderate. The tide was falling. The NES tug was grinding on the reef and its connected barge swinging back and forth in the surf. What could we do?! We watched in abject disbelief waiting for the worst to happen. Heiltsuk Mariners tried hailing the Coast Guard on the radio to offer advice on how the tug could be pulled off the rocks, to no avail.
As the tide fell, the tug began to smash more heavily against the reef, and the chatter on the radio between the Coast Guard and crew was ominous. The pumps on the NES were failing, the hull was breached, it was time for the crew to evacuate the tug. The tug sank in moments. As soon as it was beneath the surface the smell of diesel fumes washed over us, and the water became milky around us. It was the single most helpless feeling that I’ve ever experienced. We think of our territory as part of ourselves – and this crushing new presence felt like a physical assault. The sea conditions were now building, and the tide was turning. The diesel was now flowing into the clam-rich beaches of Gale Pass. We went ashore and walked the beach while we waited for the booms to arrive. The oil washed across the sand and rocks, slick under my boots. My head was dizzy with the fumes.
As the day progressed we did what we could. We placed booms across the mouth of Gale Pass and around the tug. But the damage was done. Our world was changed. The ride back to Bella Bella was beautiful, the sun golden on the mountains and a humpback whale spouted in the distance. Tears streamed down my face and I grieved.
Making the Unseen Seen
As scientists and scholars, community members and environmental advocates, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, authors, readers, and humans – how do we talk about the impacts of the NES oil spill? Certainly, to quantify the oil that seeped from the doomed vessel that day – to count the clams who filtered diesel through their soft bodies, or to enumerate the gulls, or wolves, or bears who consumed contaminated oceanic protein on that foul-smelling beach in October – would not capture the whole narrative.
“Certainly, to quantify the oil that seeped from the doomed vessel that day – to count the clams who filtered diesel through their soft bodies, or to enumerate the gulls, or wolves, or bears who consumed contaminated oceanic protein on that foul-smelling beach in October – would not capture the whole narrative.”
Along Heiltsuk shores, part of the temperate rainforest iconically known to the world and National Geographic as the “Great Bear Rainforest”, the irreparability of such spills defy calculation. For the Heiltsuk people, the impacts of the spill still ripple ceaselessly through their lives, nearly two years after the incident. While the oil slicks have disappeared from Gale Pass beaches, Heiltsuk people wonder if local black bears harbor toxins, if ancient cedar trees and their bark that is so culturally important are forever changed. How do we understand the magnitude of spill impacts for a culture that views the Ocean as home, and whose cultural, personal, and physical sustenance is supported by the abundance of species it houses? Perhaps we do so through poetry, through ecologically-embedded social sciences, or through improved cross-cultural communications. More importantly, perhaps we do so by restoring the Heiltsuk’s – and other First Nations’- rights to respond to environmental destruction in their own territories, and by recognizing their rights to dictate who, and what, navigate through their Oceans (and lands).
As British Columbia faces ever-increasing pressure to allow tanker traffic and pipeline expansions through traditional Indigenous territories, understanding these impacts in real and meaningful ways has never been more crucial. On an objective scale, the calamity caused by the NES was small relative to the consequences that would have resulted had the tanker and articulated barge not delivered their payload before meeting an untimely end. Threats of catastrophic tanker spills in Heiltsuk territory persist – near misses occurring far too frequently. Proposals to increase tanker traffic across provincial coastlines only increase the chances of a spill that would result in irreparable cultural and ecological consequences; changes to protect the entire coast from the threat of oil spills must occur – before the unthinkable does.