Pilotage in Canada

The Pilotage Act provides the framework for the regulation and provision of pilotage services in Canada. It has served the country, and marine transportation in particular, very well and compares favourably with anywhere else in the world.

What is Pilotage?

Marine transportation faces serious navigational challenges every day: dangerous weather, treacherous tides and currents, underwater hazards, congested waterways, and narrow channels.

Stacked against this list of hazards is the accumulated experience and knowledge of the marine pilot. Pilots are seasoned mariners who use their knowledge of local waters to safely guide vessels to their destination.

When pilotage services are required, marine pilots are dispatched to meet and board vessels as they enter designated compulsory pilotage areas. According to the Pilotage Act, no person shall have the conduct of a vessel within a compulsory pilotage area unless that person is a licensed pilot or holds a pilotage certificate allowing him to operate in that area.

Pilots usually board the vessel by means of ladder, often climbing the side of the vessel for up to 9 meters, an embarkation procedure which is always risky, and even more so under inclement conditions. Once the pilot is aboard, he goes to the vessel's bridge area where he will stay, guiding the vessel until it has transited the area.


The pilotage system's most important measure of success must be the degree to which it is able to ensure the safe navigation of vessels. Statistics show that the incident-free rate for piloted vessels consistently stands at 99.9%. This impressive safety record has been sustained over many years, despite the increasing number and size of vessels using the waterways.

This excellent safety record, in an environment where so many hazards exist, is, first, the result of rigorous pilot recruitment criteria, training and examination before a pilot license is issued. These high standards emphasize the importance of an intimate knowledge of local waters, and specialized training on the most up-to-date ship equipment and simulation facilities. A rigorous pilot proficiency program completes this process.

Second, the safety record reflects the fact that pilots are able to apply their expertise professional judgement without hindrance from commercial pressure, allowing them to take the appropriate measures to mitigate the risk to navigation when it is too high.

Environmental Protection

Following a lengthy examination process, the Pilotage Act was modernized through extensive amendments in June 2019. While the Government of Canada reaffirmed its confidence in a set of fundamental principles that contribute to the system’s excellent performance, including the independence of pilots from commercial pressure, significant changes were also made to the Act. One of the most significant such change is the introduction of a Statement of Purpose and Principles.

The Statement recognizes the preoccupations of Canadians for environmental protection requiring, at section 2(a) of the Act, that “pilotage services be provided in a manner that promotes and contributes to the safety of navigation, including the safety of the public and marine personnel, and that protects human health, property and the environment”.


All of this comes at no cost to taxpayers; the cost of pilotage is paid by those who use it. When compared to other jurisdictions around the globe, the pilotage tariff charged to users is very low.

Because the cost to shipping lines for pilotage is just a tiny fraction of the overall cost of their operations, it follows that these charges have virtually no impact on modal preference, choice of shipping route or rates charged to shippers.

Please click here for more information about Canadian pilotage tariffs and how they compare with those of other jurisdictions around the world.

The safety and efficiency benefits of pilotage result in an overall cost benefit ratio for Canadian pilotage of 30.6 to 1. This means that the $256 million spent on Canadian pilotage in 2018 bought at least $7.8 billion in economic benefit to Canada.

In this video CMPA President, Capt. Simon Pelletier discusses:

Canadian Vessels and Marine Pilotage

Canadian vessels have two choices when in compulsory pilotage areas:

  1. Board a marine pilot, licensed by an independent regulator. The benefits of this include:

    • Highly-qualified pilots with:
      • extensive knowledge of local waters
      • years of experience
      • specialized training
      • rigorous testing
      • continuous learning to maintain currency of knowledge
    • an outstanding safety record
    • tariffs that are among the lowest in the world.
  2. Rely on an officer with Canadian citizenship possessing a pilotage certificate on board the vessel. Despite the compulsory nature of Canada's pilotage regime, Canadian shipping companies can avoid having to engage pilots by taking advantage of the provision in the Pilotage Act regarding pilotage certificates.

    • If a ship's officer who is a regular member of the complement has knowledge of local waters equivalent to that of a licensed pilot, that officer is eligible for a pilotage certificate.
    • Certification is achieved by passing examinations administered by pilotage authorities which are independent crown corporations responsible for the regulation of pilotage.