West Coast tourists get their thrills from the ocean, but they might not know how to play around it safely.
“We have this increase in people visiting all year and participating in activities that they just didn’t before,” said Parks Canada visitor safety specialist Randy Mercer. “Which, generally leads to a general upward trend in incidents or near misses.”
Mercer’s words came during a presentation he gave to Ucluelet’s municipal council last month outlining a soon-to-be-launched pilot project designed to decrease dangerous behaviour by increasing education and awareness.
The CoastSmart program is backed with a roughly $810,000 budget from the National Search and Rescue Secretariat of Canada and could see the West Coast become a template for the rest of the country, which currently does not have a clear ocean-safety program.
Mercer said Canada has seen about 2,444 preventable, water-related deaths over five years and that 20 per cent of those were associated with shoreline activities. He added the West Coast has seen about 20 ocean-related deaths over the last 20 years.
“That led us to applying for funding for this project because, we thought, that the area would benefit from having a consistent message to visitors,” he said. “Our primary goals are related around increasing hazard awareness and decreasing severity or frequency of incidents.”
He said the work is being overseen by a steering committee comprised of himself, Ucluelet’s manager of environmental and emergency services Karla Robison and Tofino’s manager of community sustainability Aaron Rodgers, but added everybody has a role in the multi-jurisdictional program.
“It’s built to be the start of something,” he said.
“This is a longterm, probably never-ending thing, I hope, to build a culture and Im hoping we can use this money to seed efforts that we can grow and we’re trying to develop them in a way that doesn’t tax us too much. We’re not trying to make this be really cumbersome on the districts or the Park.”
The project includes installing clear and consistent signage throughout the region as well as launching a new website that will include educational videos and marketing materials.
“The approach we’re taking is more of a marketing approach and we’re trying to make it feel like some of the tourism marketing that’s occurring for our areas,” he said. “So that, at least we hope, people will already be somewhat aware before they get here and want to seek out more information, instead of relying on hitting them at the last stop, when they’re at the beach.”
He said the current signage around local shores and ocean access points display inconsistent terminology and language that creates confusion and muddles the messages.
CoastSmart has budgeted $200,000 to remedy this by creating clear and concise signage to be used throughout the region but, Mercer said, $200,000 can only go so far due to high installation costs.
He said one option was to either spend the budget on new signs and leave their installation up to each district and the Park, or buy fewer signs and install them immediately with the money available.
He suggested the first approach was the right way to go.
“We have an opportunity to purchase more material that we could install overtime as we put face lifts on current access points,” he said.
“If we produce more signs now, we have a better chance of having consistency across the region, because, if you only produce some and you don’t have the money to get more later, then you end up with signs at some places and not at others…If you have an inventory you can pick away at it and get them in the ground as you can.”
Ucluelet’s council didn’t make an official decision right away, but Coun. Randy Oliwa supported the idea of buying as many signs as possible and then installing them on the district’s dime as funding becomes available.
“I think that’s definitely the way to go,” he said. “It, sort of, also puts the onus on everybody to get them done…I think that makes a lot of sense on our end.”
Oliwa added though that Ucluelet has nearly wrapped up its 2017 budget planning, so would be unlikely to find any spare dollars this year.
He suggested the program was coming in at a good time as the Park is installing a new, $18 million, 22-kilometre bike path that will link its north and south edges.
“The users are just going to increase,” he said.
“You’re going to definitely see your day-trip family groups biking between Ucluelet and Tofino and hitting Long Beach increase for sure.”
Mayor Dianne St. Jacques asked when the videos and marketing materials would be ready to go and Mercer responded there would be a soft-launch in March to generate interest in the program.
Coun. Marilyn McEwen suggested the videos could be a valuable resource for local accommodation providers.
“We’re always looking for new material for our blogs and our websites, so that would be great to have for our guests that haven’t arrived yet,” she said.