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Spill response boats work to contain bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa, second from top, anchored on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The toxic fuel spill off Vancouver's harbour underscores a major gap in research and preparedness because of federal cuts to science programs, says an expert with the city's aquarium.

Peter Ross, director of the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Pollution Research Program, said there is no cohesive long-term monitoring of British Columbia's coastal ecosystems. The lack of baseline data makes it difficult for scientists to assess the spill's impact, he said.

"We think there is a gap in terms of our capacity to understand the ocean, document our impact on the ocean, and consequently that renders very, very difficult our ability to protect the ocean," he said in a phone interview.

"These sorts of spills simply underscore our lack of understanding and preparedness for anything like this."

The bulk grain carrier MV Marathassa dumped at least 2,700 litres of bunker fuel into English Bay last Wednesday and the oil quickly spread to beaches in the bay, along Stanley Park and on West Vancouver's shores.

Dr. Ross said the Vancouver Aquarium learned of the spill through media reports last Thursday and immediately dispatched scientists to take samples of oil, water and sediment. Aquarium divers have collected sediment from the bottom of Burrard Inlet.

Both the department of fisheries and oceans (DFO) and the City of Vancouver have also conducted water sampling. Dr. Ross said it isn't surprising that three agencies are undertaking separate testing.

"There is no official clarity around who is to monitor the effects of a spill," he said, adding it is the Coast Guard's job to respond to the immediate aftermath.

"That's why we need to have a better sense as to who is monitoring and how that will proceed, but it also articulates another perhaps far more deep question, which is: Do we really understand the ocean as much as we should?" The federal government cut millions in funding to DFO in 2012.

More than 50 scientists lost their jobs, including Dr. Ross, whose marine toxicology program was shut down.

The DFO did not immediately respond to a request for comment. While the province shares some responsibility for monitoring the B.C. coast, it is the DFO's job to monitor marine life health, said Dr. Ross.

DFO announced on Wednesday that it was closing recreational fisheries west of Lions Gate Bridge one week after the spill. The department said it took the precaution immediately after advice from Vancouver Coastal Health.

The Musqueam First Nation issued its own urgent notice one day after the spill, warning those who harvest crab and prawn to stop fishing.

However, the DFO has also said that samples taken from Siwash Rock, Sandy Cove, English Bay and the waters surrounding the ship had hydrocarbon levels below laboratory detection limits and met federal and provincial guidelines.

The City of Vancouver said it expects to share results of its water and sediment sampling with health authorities by the end of the week.

Aquarium CEO John Nightingale said the aquarium has stepped in to fill the gap by launching its Coastal Ocean Research Institute, which collects data on B.C.'s ocean ecosystems.

It also recently launched an initiative to test sediment and mussels for pollution called PollutionWatch on Vancouver Island's south coast. He said they hope to expand the testing across the B.C.


While there are some existing monitoring programs, including those conducted by Metro Vancouver and academics, they are simply not cohesive enough, said Mr. Nightingale.

He added the spill has demonstrated that a more harmonized approach is needed.

"One of the things this revealed was that we probably need a better co-ordinated effort, both starting now at understanding the marine environment, but also in case something like this happens again."