British Columbia is building momentum as a major ocean industry hub on Canada’s west coast thanks to the province’s world-class R&D expertise, as well as its major government and private investment programmes. 

Nearly 1000 companies are active in the ocean technology sector across the region, 90% of them concentrated in Victoria and Vancouver, according to figures from the British Columbia Trade and Investment.

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The cluster includes associations, universities, research institutes and a large naval presence and features some of the main actors of the national ocean industry. These include: Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), an initiative by the University of Victoria that has pioneered ‘smart ocean’ technologies; Seaspan Shipyards, the centre of a shipbuilding cluster that has been rejuvenated by the government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS); and the port of Vancouver, the largest in the country and on the west Pacific coast of North America. The hub is also becoming a catalyst for events focusing on ocean technologies and industries.    

An ocean tech leader 

“Our interest is to develop technologies that can reduce the environmental impact on the oceans and keep them cleaner,” says Dr Kate Moran, CEO of Ocean Networks Canada (ONC).

ONC developed the Neptune and Venus projects, the first regional underwater ocean observatories to connect directly to the internet and whose data is available for analysis and to inform policymakers about anything concerning coastal communities and the health of their ecosystems. ONC has also pioneered an earthquake early-warning system, and recently received funding for the testing of a carbon-negative technology designed to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and inject it into deep-sea basalt.

As well as supporting scientific research, local communities and national policy-making, the technologies developed by ONC generate business opportunities for the company and its partners. Jasco Applied Sciences, with offices on Vancouver Island and in Halifax, collaborated with ONC on a product development for its advanced sound-monitoring systems, which records and assesses the sound generated by shipping lines and its impact on ocean ecosystems in order to achieve more sustainable shipping management.

Clean energy company Carbon Engineering, based in Squamish, British Columbia, is one of the technical partners for ONC’s carbon-negative project, which if successful could be very lucrative. “The scientific community has accepted by now that sooner or later we will have to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” says Ms Moran.   

The private sector in British Columbia is also working on an initiative that follows in the footsteps of the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (Cove), located across the country in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. “We are trying to put together an innovation cluster on the west coast,” says Alex Rueben, executive director at the Association of British Columbia Marine Industries. “We are speaking to different levels of government to create a marine innovation hub much like Cove on the east coast.”

Seaspan growth

Meanwhile, in the more traditional shipbuilding industry, the Canadian government’s multibillion-dollar, 30-year NSS is generating major activity throughout the cluster, first and foremost for Vancouver-based Seaspan Shipyards, which won the contract for the supply of non-combat vessels, initially valued at about C$8bn ($6bn).

“It has been night and day from where we were eight years ago [before Seaspan won the NSS contract],” says Amy MacLeod, Seaspan’s vice-president for corporate affairs and external communications. “Back then, we had about a couple of hundred employees – today we have 2700 spread across our three shipyards [two in Vancouver and one in Victoria].”

The company invested C$200m to upgrade its facilities for the NSS programme. It delivered the first of three offshore fisheries science vessels it is building for the Canadian Coast Guard in June 2019, while the remaining two are at an advanced stage of construction.

The activity generated by the NSS programme goes far beyond Seaspan, as it encourages the main contractors (Seaspan and Irving on the east coast) to work with domestic suppliers. So far, Seaspan has signed C$936m in contracts with 625 supply companies across the country – 63% of them in British Columbia – and contributed C$880m to the provincial economy, according to figures from the company.

In addition, says Ms MacLeod: “Because of the federal government’s long-term commitment with the NSS, there is a whole new generation of Canadians looking at the shipbuilding industry for their careers.” 

As part of the NSS agreement, Seaspan is developing specific skills vital for a comprehensive shipbuilding sector. The company supports the University of British Columbia in establishing naval architecture and marine engineering academic programmes, as well as the marine trades and manufacturing programme at Camosun College, Victoria.

A vintage port

British Columbia is also expanding its port infrastructure to strengthen its position as Canada’s main commercial shipping centre. Authorities at the port of Prince Rupert in the northernmost part of British Columbia, on the border with Alaska, are expanding the existing Fairview Container Terminal in conjunction with Dubai-based port operator DP World. The project will increase the terminal’s capacity to 1.8 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) from the current 1.3 million TEUs and is scheduled to wrap up in 2022. At the same time, the port authority is considering building a new container terminal with a 2.5 million TEU capacity.

At the port of Vancouver (Canada’s largest), DP World and Global Container Terminals are enlarging their local operations, and there is major growth planned at the port’s terminals for bulk commodities. Local authorities are also considering proposals to add container capacity at the Roberts Bank port, 32 kilometres south of Vancouver. 

Shipping them in

This activity is driving an interest among event organisers that has made Vancouver in particular a major venue for global ocean industry-related events, such as the 2019 World Maritime Rescue Congress, the 2020 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference, and the 2021 International Marine Protected Area Congress hosted by national charity the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). CPAWS ocean conservation manager Alexandra Barron says: “We look forward to hosting this meeting and showcasing the best of Canada and British Columbia on an international stage.” 

All of this underscores the importance of the ocean industries to the province, and to Canada's economy. A spokesperson from the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations says: “More than three-quarters of British Columbia’s population lives in the coastal zone, and many make their living from the province’s vibrant tourism industry, marine shipping and transportation sector, diverse fishing economy and other coastal activities. Given this, we recognise the importance of the health of our marine environment and the role that it plays in supporting our way of life.”