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The marine industry says federal legislation that upends decades of shipping regulations is expected to cut costs and standardize safety rules for vessels that sail Canadian waters.

Ottawa has introduced legislation to amend the Pilotage Act, a 47-year-old law that governs the four Crown corporations that regulate shipping and ship operators in four parts of the country: the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and the East and West Coasts.

The proposed changes will transfer to Transport Canada the pilotage authorities’ rule-making and enforcement roles and bring greater transparency, accountability and competitiveness to the agreements between the Crown corporations and the 410 ship operators, known as pilots.

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Vessels in much of the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and the East and West Coasts are required to take aboard and be steered by a specially qualified ship operator employed and certified by each region’s respective pilotage authority. The pilotage authorities are Crown corporations that are responsible for licensing pilots and negotiating labour agreements with pilots or the corporations that represent them.

The system, in place since 1972, is intended to ensure the pilots and the authorities that govern them are accountable to the public – not the companies that own the ships.

It’s a system that receives little public notice, and that’s because it works safely, said Tristan Laflamme, executive director of the Canadian Marine Pilots’ Association, which represents pilots across the country.

“There are about 50,000 pilotage assignments a year in Canada in waterways that are deemed to be the highest risk places on the water and there are no accidents and that’s because pilots are very good, very qualified but they are able to operate in a context where they really can exercise their best professional judgment free from commercial interest, without undue pressure from ship owners,” Mr. Laflamme said.

But the companies that operate ships or rely on them to get their goods to market say the cost of using pilots has risen far faster than the rate of inflation, and makes the Great Lakes unaffordable for shipping some goods. For instance, a vessel departing Thunder Bay for Montreal is required to take on 10 different pilots during the five-day journey for total costs of $100,000, according to the Chamber of Marine Commerce. A typical pilot makes between $350,000 and $400,000 a year, compared with about $160,000 for a captain employed by a shipping company.

The proposed changes strip the authorities’ regulatory functions, leaving them to focus on administering pilot services.

“Pilotage fees represent approximately 20 to 25 per cent of the marine fees that vessels pay as they enter Canada," Marc Grégoire wrote in his review of the Pilotage Act for Transport Canada; the review spurred much of the changes. "Furthermore, the monopoly structure of pilotage service delivery has drawn criticism from industry users, especially since pilotage is mandatory and shippers are responsible for the costs of pilotage through tariffs.”

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The marine industry said the standardized pilot certification program will increase the use of company-employed ship operators in some waters, reducing their reliance on the more expensive pilots employed by the four regional authorities.

“A lot of provisions that should be regulatory provisions have snuck into the labour contracts ... where the pilots have a lot of leverage over the authorities. They won’t be able to do that any more,” said Bruce Burrows, president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, which represents Canadian and U.S. ship owners, ports and other companies that work on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.

Allister Paterson, executive vice-president and chief commercial officer of ship owner CSL Group, said the greater transparency and giving both safety and efficiency mandates to the pilotage authorities will help maintain the competitiveness of Canada’s marine companies. He said the company’s crews are ready to take on expanded roles if the proposed changes allow it.

All four heads of the respective pilotage authorities said they supported the proposed changes, and welcomed the ability to set charges to ships locally. Some authorities had sought greater regulatory powers, but the legislation grants them less.

Instead, the authorities’ functions will be limited to hiring and providing pilots, and setting the fees and charges to shipping companies without having to seek approval from Transport Canada.

“It was taking a lot of time to get through that process,” said Michèle Bergevin, chief executive officer of the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority.

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Kevin Obermeyer, CEO of Pacific Pilotage Authority, which is responsible for B.C.’s coastal waters and the Fraser River, said removing the group’s regulatory responsibilities brings them in line with other federal agencies, and frees up the authority to focus on service administration.

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