Fishing debris and oyster farms endanger BC marine life

Abandoned oyster farms and other fish farms on the west coast of Vancouver Island are death traps for salmon, herring, marine mammals and a myriad of sea life – and no one really knows how many there are.

Car batteries, barrels of oil and diesel fuel, creosote logs, giant blocks of styrofoam, pieces of iron and wood planks, miles of rope and hundreds of plastic containers.

Abandoned oyster farms and other fish farms off the west coast of Vancouver Island are a toxic, tangled mess – and deadly traps for salmon, herring, sea mammals and a myriad of marine life.

Nobody really knows how many there are out there, sunken in bays and coves, leaking polystyrene pellets and petroleum products.

Josh Temple, executive director of the Coastal Restoration Society of Tofino, says there are “dozens, if not hundreds” of sites along the BC coast. Many have been torn apart by time and storms and hidden beneath the surface, and they represent a constant state of danger for fragile species and ecosystems.

The federal government is beginning to catalog marine sites of concern, collecting data from its licensing records and sightings of overflights by its various agencies, Temple said. Reports from residents are also documented so that the most serious sites are identified for cleanups.

Bivalve aquaculture has been a constant concern for millennia, and the modern form of floating docks and diesel engines for several decades. But many were abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s without being dismantled.

Last year, the Coastal Restoration Society salvaged the debris of three abandoned oyster farms in Nootka Sound and another in Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of the island.

While starting one such project at Oos Point in Nootka Sound, Temple noticed that a large chunk of the original mooring was missing, likely torn away by recent winds and storms.

A few months later, much of the floating dock was found 60 nautical miles to the north near Estevan Point during a helicopter survey. “We found the original infrastructure washed up on the beach, where [the polystyrene floats] had just exploded over an area about a mile long,” Temple said. “It was a massive and expensive cleanup and everything had to be removed by helicopter.”

“That’s why it’s so important to identify these sites and clean them up – in their original location,” Temple said.

Derelict fishing gear, nets and ropes tied to floats at docks pose extreme danger to endangered gray whales and southern resident killer whales, Temple said. And the recovering humpback whale populations that frequent the island’s inland seas are prone to entanglements, which can cause exhaustion and eventual drowning.

But it’s petroleum-based polystyrene floats, often called Styrofoam, that pose a more widespread threat as the foam shatters into millions of tiny pieces and contains toxins that kill critical fish stocks.

The Coastal Restoration Society was also conducting a clean-up project with the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in Opitsaht across from Tofino Harbour, hauling out abandoned crab pots, barrels and old floats, when it discovered two sunken oyster farms “no one even knew they were there,” Temple said.

“It’s a big problem.”


Some of the funding for these cleanup projects comes from the federal government’s Ghost Gear program, which works with contractors, First Nations and other coastal communities to clean up ocean debris and lost or abandoned fishing gear that’s harming stocks. of fish and marine mammals on the east, west and arctic coasts. It was launched in 2019 with a budget of $8.3 million which was increased to $10 million for 2021-2022.

To date, the Ghost Gear program has removed nearly 740 tonnes of derelict, lost or abandoned fishing gear from Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the equivalent of 231 Zambonis.

This includes over 118 kilometers of rope, almost enough to stretch from Victoria to Parksville.

The federal government has allocated funds to 37 First Nations entrepreneurs and communities across the country in its latest Ghost Gear funding, with the Coastal Restoration Society receiving the highest amount at $700,000. Others from the island included the Emerald Sea Protection Society ($235,000) and the Malahat Nation ($336,000) – both for finding lost fishing gear; and Natural Resources Consultants of Campbell River, which received $150,000 for net loss response and training of divers to retrieve lost gear.

The program has created more than 300 jobs on both coasts, many in First Nations communities, including the Ahousaht in Clayoquot Sound, where the Coastal Restoration Society spent weeks cleaning up an old fish farm near the island Oyster.

“We’re cleaning up around our territories and also helping wildlife,” said Jeanne John, a shore crew member. “We like to take care of our territories and where we live off the land.”

George John, manager of shore crews at the cleanup site, says there is a lot of seafood in the area that needs to be protected. “It’s important that we all start loving the land as it should be.”

The province’s Clean Coast Clean Water initiative complements the federal government’s program. Launched during the pandemic, it provided funds to First Nations and redirected tour operators and their boats to begin the largest ocean cleanup in British Columbia’s history. It created 250 jobs, cleaned up 394 kilometers of shoreline and collected thousands of tons of debris harmful to fish and marine mammals, about half of which was recycled.

Dave Miller, director of fisheries for the Ehattesaht First Nation in Nootka, said the cleanups are essential. “Our land is our backyard…it’s our garden,” he said. “The debris has been on our beaches for some time and it’s important for us to start working to protect our environment, the fish and everything we survive on for our nation.”

Cleaning up an abandoned oyster farm can take one to three weeks, depending on the amount of debris. The Oyster Island project was the most complex, filling four 100ft barges. The site was laden with batteries and petroleum products, huge pieces of polystyrene and dock frames, Temple said.

The process begins with locating the cleanup site, communicating with the First Nation with land rights, and discussing a formal remediation agreement.

Temple said the company then liaises with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, provincial departments and Transport Canada on the status of the license holder — whether still active or discontinued — the safe operation of a barge. , labor contracts with First Nations, deployment of booms, and safe transportation and disposal of debris.

The Coastal Restoration Society has been a leader in dismantling former aquaculture sites, Temple said, as it worked with WorkSafe BC and the federal government on occupational health standards and procedures on how best to ensuring the safety of workers in this complicated process.

Temple said surface infrastructure is removed first and remotely operated dive vehicles and other sensors are deployed to visualize the underwater site. Dive teams are only deployed when necessary, he said.


Debris from the oyster farm projects was unloaded in Gold River and Tofino and trucked to sorting sites. As part of the Ghost Gear program, Ocean Legacy — a Steveston-based nonprofit organization — has depots in Powell River and Ucluelet, where debris is sorted into recycling categories.

Debris too eroded to be recycled goes to landfill. Recyclable steel parts are sent to Schnitzer Steel on the island.

Ocean Legacy transforms ropes and nets, barrels, floats and other sea-related items into plastic pellets for remanufacturing. The polystyrene is disassembled and extruded into ingots and sold to third parties for re-manufacturing.

“All cleanups on the west coast of British Columbia pass through our facilities, where they are downsized and re-granulated for manufacturing,” said Chloe Dubois, President of Ocean Legacy. “We’re enabling new systems to take these materials and do something really positive with them and recirculate them in a closed-loop system.”

Ocean Legacy produced the first commercially available plastic pellet in North America from plastic collected from cleaning up oceans, shorelines and marine equipment. His Legacy Plastic is a “watershed moment” in solving the ocean plastic crisis, Dubois said.

Currently, the Steveston facility handles 11 streams of debris, including leftover shoes, dock tires filled with expanding foam, and crab traps.

Last year, Ocean Legacy processed over 800,000 pounds of debris. It is currently capable of processing around 700 books per hour. The business employs 10 people and depends entirely on government funding, volunteers and donations.

Dubois said Ocean Legacy is working with manufacturing companies in Canada, the United States, Brazil and Europe who plan to turn its “Legacy Plastics” into sunglasses, kayak seats and paddles, picture frames and wall art. – even in guitar pictures.

“We are also looking to work with the automotive, outdoor and recreation sectors on long-term recyclable products,” she said.

Tim Niemier, founder of Ocean Kayak and Origami Paddler, said he supports collecting plastic from the ocean to be recycled into paddles and other items “to be used by paddlers who love the water they’re in. are paying”.

“As a business owner and a human, I feel it’s my responsibility to help make our paddling environment cleaner than when we first started paddling,” he said. “This project cleans up the environment and makes recycling commercially profitable, which means it can be economically sustainable.”

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