Derelict fishing gear, abandoned boats, and “snowdrifts” of plastic foam are some of the enormous challenges B.C. communities are facing when it comes to cleaning up marine debris, according to a B.C. government report.
Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.’s parliamentary secretary for the environment, travelled around the province speaking to coastal communities about the obstacles to removing plastics and debris in the ocean, and released a report Wednesday called “What We Heard on Marine Debris in B.C.”
Malcolmson will make recommendations to develop a plan in a second report to B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman. She didn’t have a date for those recommendations but said it would be as soon as possible.
The report says in some areas nearly half of the marine debris collected on shore is from derelict fishing gear, also known as ghost gear. In some communities, residents complained of heaps of foam washing up on the beaches. Polystyrene foam comes from a wide variety of sources, but notably it is crumbling off aging floats used in the aquaculture industry.
“I think we heard more about (foam) than any other marine debris,” Malcolmson said Thursday. “We saw photos of people shovelling so much broken up … foam it looked like they were in snowdrifts,” she said.
She said there is concern about marinas in Vancouver where the foam dock floats are dissolving, and pieces are being eaten by Canada geese and otters.
The industry switched from using steel pilings to foam floats but Malcolmson said there’s no containment plan for what happens to it when it dissolves.
One of the recommendations Malcolmson will be considering is whether B.C. should enact laws to ban the use of foam in the aquaculture industry.
She noted that some companies are voluntarily removing foam.
“We heard from the Shellfish Growers Association that one of their members has already removed (foam) from 800 of their floats … but it is not yet a requirement across the board.”
Other major contributors to marine debris cited in the report are abandoned vessels, and private mooring buoys, which are increasingly being used as ways to deal with the housing crisis, and as Airbnb rentals.
The main regions concerned private mooring buoys are on the Saanich Peninsula and on the Sunshine Coast, said Malcolmson. She noted that private mooring buoys are growing in numbers, difficult to regulate, and can lead to more abandoned vessels.
Abandoning vessels is a serious problem, she said, as fibreglass ends its life cycle and wears out, and as there are more intense storms as a result of climate change.
“That may be a decision point for the owner to say ‘ah this boat is too damaged I am just going to walk away.’ It’s hard to bring the accountability and have them clean up their mess.”
She heard from many concerned residents that there are not enough recycling centres or there is a lack of affordable options for disposal, and will be considering recommendations that the province provide options for disposing of vessels and marine debris at multiple locations coast-wide.
Malcolmson said the government could consider a cash for clunkers-style of pilot program that encourages boat owners to turn in their unwanted vessels.
Some participants Malcolmson spoke with estimated that derelict fishing gear accounted for almost half of the marine debris collected by weight while others found only about a tenth of the debris was fishing gear.
Fishing nets, buoy balls, plastic net bags, oyster trays, and long lines can stay in the ocean for hundreds of years before eventually breaking down into micro plastics that can enter the food chain, the report says.
Many residents cited single-use plastics, including plastic bottles, straws, and shopping bags as a major source of marine debris, however this report did not look at land-based sources of marine plastics.
A federal report, however, which was published last Thursday by Environment and Climate Change Canada, found overwhelming evidence that plastic is a threat to human and animal health. As a result of the report, Ottawa is moving to ban single-use plastics in 2021 such as plastic straws, water bottles and shopping bags.
While the Vancouver-based Ocean Legacy Foundation applauded the plan, executive director Chloe Dubois said there is still no plan from the federal government to address the issue of derelict fishing gear.
Victoria Weizmann, a spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said, however, that the federal government has earmarked $8.3 million for the Sustainable Fisheries Solutions and Retrieval Support Contribution Program, also called the Ghost Gear Fund. The fund is part of the larger federal strategy on zero plastic waste.
The money, she said, is to assist fish harvesters, environmental groups, Indigenous communities, and the aquaculture industry find and retrieve ghost gear from the ocean and “dispose of it responsibly.” Groups can submit proposals for cleanup projects on the DFO website.
Meantime, Malcolmson said she will be looking at how the B.C. government can better support non-government organizations and conservation organizations that are using hundreds of volunteers. Many of them are looking at how they can put the debris back into the economy.
“They are not just thinking about taking it to the dump. They are thinking how can we create new markets to deal with this problem. To collect neoprene wetsuits and turn them into yoga mats, to be recycling fishing nets into carpets. To experiment with gasification with new plastic as a fuel,” she said.
“We have some brilliant thinking in B.C. and that, for the public, can make the problem seem less daunting.”