Commercial Marine Shipping Accidents: Understanding the Risks in Canada

Canada’s economic and social development has benefited immensely from centuries of marine shipping. Today, the industry supports economies from coast to coast to coast, shipping hundreds of millions of tonnes of cargo, ranging from fuels to food, to consumer goods lining store shelves. The shipping industry is important to the livelihood of Canadians, but has also faced increased public scrutiny in recent years. The risks associated with opening the Arctic to greater ship traffic, increasing marine shipments of oil from Canada’s oil sands, and the growth in vessel size, especially of container ships, have all contributed to this discussion.

Recognizing the need for consensus-building research in this area, the Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping asked the Council of Canadian Academies to convene an expert workshop to identify the risks associated with commercial marine shipping in major Canadian shipping regions. The final workshop report, Commercial Marine Shipping Accidents: Understanding the Risks in Canada, identifies the risks of commercial marine shipping accidents across Canada’s regions and for different cargo types, while highlighting gaps in understanding and areas for further research.

The workshop report brings together perspectives from academia, government, and industry and is informed by evidence from a survey of the marine shipping community and an extensive review of the existing literature. It can be used as a tool for policy-makers to help inform decisions related to managing the risks of commercial marine shipping accidents. Overall, this workshop report seeks to contribute to a national dialogue about acceptable levels of risk in commercial marine shipping.


The following questions were developed by Clear Seas to guide the expert panel workshop:

What are the main areas of social, environmental, and economic risk associated with key stages of marine shipping of goods [such as oil, coal, and liquefied natural gas, and hazardous and noxious substances] in Canadian waters? Are these risks commonly agreed upon? To what extent are they measurable?

Key Findings

  • Commercial marine shipping risks are mitigated by a large body of regulations, safety protocols and practices, and navigation technologies, which have made marine shipping, in Canada and globally, much safer in recent decades.
  • Commercial marine shipping operates in a complex risk environment where a variety of factors interact to increase or decrease the likelihood of an accident and the severity of its impact.
  • The nature of commercial marine shipping risk varies by region due to differences in cargo, regulation, physical traits of the marine environment, and economic, social, and cultural uses of waterways and coastlines.
  • Risks associated with major oil spills are significant and well documented, and they underscore how resulting environmental impacts can bring about social, economic, and health impacts.
  • Better-quality marine shipping data are needed if the likelihood of incidents and accidents is to be better understood and measured for different cargo types, stages of shipping, and types of impacts.
  • Further research would address gaps in the understanding of Canada’s marine risk environment, particularly with respect to impacts of hazardous and noxious substances (HNS) and diluted bitumen, spills in freshwater and cold environments, and on the multi-agency system that oversees marine safety in Canada. 

Report and Related Products

The Workshop Steering Committee

To develop the survey for the marine shipping community and prepare background material for the workshop, the Council’s Board of Governors appointed a four-member Workshop Steering Committee, chaired by Captain Dr. James R. Parsons, Academic Director, Marine Institute of Memorial University. For a complete list of Steering Committee members, visit the Steering Committee page.

Workshop Participants

Workshop participants, comprised of researchers, marine experts, and industry representatives, were appointed to respond to the charge set out by Clear Seas. For a complete list of workshop participants, visit the Workshop Participants page.

For further information, please contact:

Tijs Creutzberg, Director of Assessments at 613-567-5000 ext. 232 or

For media inquiries, please contact:

Samantha Rae Ayoub, Communications and Publishing Director at 613-567-5000 ext. 256 or

Mailing List Signup

Receive our newsletter, notifications of new assessments topics, news releases, and more!
Preference English  Français
Additional Information



Regional Risk Profiles of Commercial Marine Shipping Accidents