The Sinking of the S.S. Arrow

On February 4, 1970, the Liberian-registered tanker, S.S. Arrow, ran aground in Chedabucto Bay, resulting in the most significant oil spill off Canada's East Coast.

The first major oil spill in Canadian ocean waters occurred on February 4, 1970. While on route to Point Tupper, the 11,000-ton S.S. Arrow encountered a strong gale and ran aground on Cerberus Rock, a notorious navigation hazard in Chedabucto Bay. Carrying 10,000,000 litres of Bunker C fuel oil that had been loaded in Venezuela, the Arrow was a mere 23.5 kms from her destination when she went aground.

While the Arrow’s crew was successfully evacuated late that night, gale-force winds and poor visibility impeded attempts to free her and to empty her cargo tanks. On February 8, the ship split in two, her bow and stern sinking into the waters of the Bay. As she went down, two thirds of her oil cargo escaped into the Bay, and the remaining oil in the tanks of the sunken wreck posed a threat of future contamination. Within a week of her sinking, the spill covered over 300 kms of the Cape Breton shoreline, threatening numbers of seabirds and animals as well as the fishing, shellfish, and tourism industries central to the area’s economy. The cleanup took months and cost various levels of government millions of dollars. 2500 seabirds died.

Although weather was a factor in the wreck of the ship, it was determined that navigation aids on the Liberian-flagged Arrow were not working properly, and that she was sailing too fast for conditions. At the time, however, there was no way to hold the ship’s owner in Panama accountable for government cleanup costs and losses incurred by local residents. In response to this regulatory vacuum, the Canada Shipping Act was amended in 1971, establishing one of the first national, comprehensive regulatory regimes for ocean oil spills in the world. In addition to liabilities for ship owners, the new framework also established the Marine Pollution Claims Fund to cover claims in excess of ship owners’ liability for ocean oil spills.

Despite the fact that cleanup techniques and technology for ocean spills were in their infancy in 1970, millions of litres of remaining oil were successfully pumped out of wreck of the Arrow. The environment in and around Chedabucto Bay was restored more quickly than expected at the time, and the wreck itself quickly became, and remains, a popular recreational dive site. In 2015, forty-five years after she sank, an aircraft spotted another leak, and the last remaining 30,000 litres of Bunker C oil was pumped out of the Arrow.