Shipping industry applauds sweeping changes to Canadian marine pilotage system

New legislation introduced last week to modernize Canada’s pilotage service for commercial ships will ensure safe navigation and improve the efficiency and competitiveness of Canada’s transportation system, according to the Chamber of Marine Commerce.

“After 45 years, we are finally seeing changes that will bring transparency and impartial decision-making to a costly government-mandated service that has for decades been provided with little accountability, or input from ship operators and their customers—despite the fact that it is paid for by industry fees—costs passed ultimately to consumers,” said Bruce Burrows, President of the Chamber of Marine Commerce (CMC).

In ports and other specific channels, ships are mandated by law to have a pilot from a pilotage authority come on board to help with navigation in difficult areas. Most of the 3,700-kilometer Great Lakes/St. Lawrence waterway is within a mandatory pilotage zone, as are other areas along the east and west coasts of Canada.

The detailed changes to the Pilotage Act were revealed in the Budget Implementation Act (BIA) and include: transferring regulatory responsibilities from pilotage authorities to the Minister of Transport Canada; establishing a regulatory authority for risk assessments; creating an open and clearly laid out fee-setting process, based on fair and reasonable fees; and making service contracts with pilot corporations public.

One of the most important changes is the ability for Transport Canada to now create an improved and standardized pilotage certification program. This program will allow domestic Canadian crews that have similar knowledge and experience as government-mandated pilots to navigate their own ships in compulsory pilotage zones.

“We can now start working toward a national pilotage certification program that promotes onboard training and certification of a company’s masters and officers to pilot their own vessels, similar to the program in place on the Great Lakes. This would be a huge improvement to the disjointed, out-of-date systems that currently exist in other pilotage areas,” says Burrows. “It’s important that Transport Canada work with industry in the development of these new regulations to ensure they meet shipowners’ operational needs.”

The Chamber will also continue to push for reforms to provide a more flexible labor model for pilotage authorities that gives them the ability to hire their own pilots or contract with for-profit pilotage corporations.

Background on pilotage

The rationale for pilotage is that a Canadian-licensed pilot will navigate the challenging areas where a ships’ crew may not have traveled often and know the potential hazards. This is an important safety measure, however, problems exist on how the service works.

With just over 400 pilots in Canada, pilotage is managed by four federal crown corporations, each with their own set of regulations, operational procedures and management practices. In some areas, these pilotage authorities must contract pilots from monopoly, for-profit pilot corporations, which are not obligated to provide any financial transparency.

In many of the pilotage zones, archaic and cumbersome rules make it almost impossible for domestic ship masters and mates to be certified to pilot their own vessels—despite having similar (and sometimes even greater) expertise and local knowledge, and having access to state-of-the-art navigation and traffic control management systems.

On the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, domestic ship masters and mates have been certified to pilot their own vessels, and they have a safety record that is even better than that of their government-mandated counterparts.

Fees, salaries and benefits paid to licensed pilots averaged $376,500 per pilot in 2016—increasing 3.4 times more than CPI over the last five years. On the St. Lawrence River, for example, the hourly cost of pilotage exceeds the total cost of the entire crew of a vessel.

See CMC’s full recommendations for reform here.

Andrea Lee