Coast Guard tackling derelict vessels sitting in Canadian waters

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Vancouver developer Howard Meakin has owned the famed Expo 86-era floating McDonald’s restaurant vessel known as the McBarge for decades, and despite its outward appearance, by no means is it derelict, he says.

The vessel was made famous during the 1986 World Exposition in Vancouver as a floating McDonald’s restaurant, though the vessel official name was the “Friendship 500.”

Meakin said he was surprised to learn in recent media reports that the vessel appeared on the federal government’s national inventory of wrecked, abandoned or hazardous vessels.

It has since been removed from the Canadian Coast Guard’s list.

“It’s just ridiculous because it’s never been abandoned,” Meakin said in an interview. “The hull is in pristine condition. We’ve had it surveyed and it’s concrete, the hull is concrete. It has a life expectancy of probably well over 100 years.”

Up until 2019, it wasn’t even illegal in Canada to abandon a boat in the country’s waters, and now the Canadian Coast Guard is working its way through the inventory, armed with the power to fine owners of hazardous vessels that threaten marine environments or public safety.

So far, only one vessel’s owner has been issued a fine under Wrecked, Abandoned or Hazardous Vessels Act.

The coast guard’s list of wrecks now has nearly 1,500 entries, roughly two thirds of which are in British Columbia, but the agency cautions that all the vessels listed aren’t “verified and confirmed by the Government of Canada.”

Robert Brooks, the agency’s director of marine environmental and hazards response, said in an interview that the list was launched in November 2022, and since 2017 more than 550 problem vessels have been removed from Canadian waters.

“We’re working every day to refine the accuracy of the national inventory,” Brooks said.

The retired BC Ferries vessel Queen of Sidney, top, that was in operation from 1960 to 2000, and another derelict vessel are seen moored on the Fraser River, in Mission, B.C., on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

In July, the Coast Guard updated the list and removed around 200 entries, and Brooks said the agency is working through the “significant case volume,” and welcomes public comments about potential inaccuracies on the list.

The McBarge is no longer on the list, nor is the Queen of Sidney, a former BC Ferries vessel sold off in 2002.

That vessel’s owner, Langley, B.C., resident Gerald Tapp eventually renamed the boat “Bad Adventure,” and it remains moored on the Fraser River.

The ship has been used in film shoots over the years, including a 2018 episode of the X-Files.

Tapp complained to the coast guard about its inclusion on the list, insisting his ship is neither wrecked, abandoned, nor hazardous, but he’s been in a prolonged legal dispute, leaving the vessel’s future uncertain, he said in an interview.

When asked about the vessel’s current state and any future plans, Tapp, 86, said he was unsure as he prepares to deal with his legal issues.

“To be honest, I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “I’ve got no idea. I might be dead before, so who knows?”

A recently posted video online purportedly from the engine room of the Queen of Sidney shows the grimy and oily state of the vessel’s interior, and the Canadian Coast Guard said that it “is aware of the video on social media.”

“We are looking into this issue,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesman Craig Macartney said in an email. “Members of the public should never venture into or on a vessel of concern due to the many potential hazards these vessels can pose.”

Macartney added that the Queen of Sidney was last assessed in 2018 and it was found “in poor condition, but was not a risk to pollute or a hazard.”

It was added to the national inventory list nonetheless, but later removed after Tapp contacted the Coast Guard, and the agency took if off the list after concluding the vessel “was not a risk to pollute nor is it a hazard.”

Other derelict vessels on the list have languished in B.C. waters for decades, such as the MV Spudnik, a U.S. Navy freighter removed from the Fraser River in 2020, and the cargo vessel Mini Fusion, a human smuggling ship formerly known as the MV Ocean Lady, which was removed from Desolation Sound in B.C. last year.

“They were significant hazards,” Brooks said, adding they cost “millions of dollars to address.”

The Coast Guard also continues to deal with the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski, a U.S. warship that sank off the coast of Prince Rupert in 1946, whose hull is deteriorating and has been leaking heavy fuel oil periodically for years.

Brooks said the Coast Guard hopes to have the ship’s remaining oil removed by sometime next year.

“Certainly the Zalinski is a complex case,” he said. “It certainly highlights the complexity when you think about the scale of the challenge of addressing wrecked, abandoned, and hazardous vessels across the country.”

Howard Meakin, the owner of the McBarge, said he is still confident the vessel can have a long second life as a tourist attraction symbolizing Vancouver’s journey from “mill town to metropolis” once the right home is found.

“It’s an iconic cultural attraction for B.C. and for Canada,” he said. “It’s definitely, you know, on my bucket list to get done.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2023.

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