By Ray Dykes

Those of us in it probably didn’t know, but the ocean and marine space industry in British Columbia is an $11.5 billion a year business these days and puts food on the table for 84,000 people through steady jobs.

“No one realized it was that huge and the prospects for growth are quite significant,” says Patrick Marshall, the CEO of Ocean Industries BC, a relatively new association forged between old offshore oil and gas interests and other marine reliant communities and businesses.

But, the big multi-billion dollar figure was being bandied about in July when Ottawa and Victoria came together to announce financial support to kick off a new Ocean Technology Park and Ocean Engineering Centre to be co-located at the University of Victoria’s Marine Technology Centre in North Saanich.

The money from the two governments – each put in $135,000 – will be the much-needed catalyst in a $330,000 feasibility study to prepare a business case or more loosely the planning and development for what is expected to be a $100 million, world-class ocean technology centre and a regional wave tank testing facility, the Pacific Centre for Ocean Energy and Engineering.

The new ocean sciences complex will be built on land in North Saanich dedicated to research and development right opposite the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences run by Fisheries & Oceans. It will come under the umbrella of University of Victoria Properties Inc. which already has a 42,000 sq. ft. Marine Technology Centre on the site.

And the man behind the new push for an ocean technology park – it was his vision and he wrote the paper that convinced the powers that be to back the proposal – Dale Gann is one happy camper about the prospects.

These days Gann has a dual title, he is the Vice President of Technology Parks for the University of Victoria and the Acting President of UVic Properties.

“We created the vision to bring together the interests of academia, government and private industry,” says Gann.

The idea crystallized at the existing Vancouver Island Technology Park – a high-tech University of Victoria enterprise – a 191,000 square foot facility in Central Saanich which brings together 31 different companies in fuel cell, new media, wireless, life science/biotech, ocean technology and ICT sectors.

“We recognized the need to create a focal point for the ocean technology and marine space sector,” recalls Gann.

Now that both the provincial and federal governments are on board, work has begun on creating a business plan for the wave tank testing facility and a master plan for the ocean technology park.

Gann hopes to go before North Saanich Council for a zoning amendment when the planning is completed in the spring of 2009 so that the ocean technology park can apply a higher density of development and create more jobs.

The initial plan for the new Ocean Technology Park includes a 300,000 square foot, multi-user building for marine technology companies and research organizations that would see both facilities providing workspace for industry, government agencies and academic researchers involved in ocean technology.

It is expected to be open “after 2010” and Gann says it will ultimately create 1,500 jobs in the ocean sciences and marine space sector. Currently, he believes there is little to put the sector at the top of young minds when they consider post-secondary education in the province and he feels the ocean technology park will make it a “sector of choice” once more.

The wave tank research and testing facility is a critical element in the new ocean technology park, according to Gann. The new facility will likely be bigger than anything in Canada, more modern with better equipment and will be an ideal replacement for the wave tank facility closing down at UBC.

And Brad Buckham, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UVic,  says the wave tanks (there could be up to three in the facility) will give researchers information in minutes that otherwise would take far longer. He believes the tanks could be used by businesses to “make ocean energy solutions a reality.”

Gann expects the wave tank testing facility will meet the needs of academia and industry as a stand-alone operation, available on a fee for service basis.

He also has one eye trained across the street at the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences and plans to increase collaboration between the two ocean industry research and development facilities. Run by Fisheries & Oceans, the institute is one of a network of nine major scientific facilities across Canada.

The institute is the home to scientists, technicians, support staff, and ship’s crews whose common interests are the coastal waters of BC, the northeast Pacific Ocean, the Western Arctic and all navigable waters east as far as the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border.

It has a marin
e dock, large cargo bays and vital testing equipment which could be shared on a fee for service basis, according to Gann.

Just 90 minutes further north in Nanaimo, Fisheries & Oceans also has its Pacific Biological Station, which it bills as the main facility for the Science Branch of F&O in the Pacific Region.

The Institute of Ocean Sciences in Victoria and biological station in Nanaimo lead the way in ocean science research such as assessing the effect of changes in ocean conditions on marine ecosystems and understanding the role of the ocean in the global climate system.

“Look at the potential here,” says Gann. “We need to bring these folks together, there has not been enough communication between them and they need each other.”

For his part, Ocean Industries BC’s Marshall is also excited about the prospects through the increasing concentration of marine-related research the new Ocean Technology Park will bring to this mix and is almost salivating over the expected commercialization of ocean technology and services and products.

Marshall predicts the new Ocean Technology Park will be a catalyst for ship building, repair and design, and other marine transportation developments.

“The development and testing of designs and innovations will help British Columbia recapture its place in the world for designer vessels and marine structures,” he adds.

The new ocean technology park could also become the new home for an ocean engineering centre, which was lost at UBC when a building was demolished to make way for much-needed residential development (the endowment lands site had been earmarked for such a move from the beginning).

And Marshall says Ocean Industries BC sees the expected concentration over 80 acres of ocean and marine space facilities, brains and innovation in Victoria as an opportunity to ensure the industry grows “in a way that meets and exceeds our expectations for a clean, safe and secure ocean and marine space economy.”