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Coastal communities are tired of paying to clean up plastic and debris from the B.C. shellfish industry to protect the marine environment, stewardship groups say.
The amount of garbage being retrieved from beaches in areas where shellfish aquaculture is concentrated grows year after year, and there’s little apparent enforcement by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to deal with the issue, said Dorrie Woodward, chair of the Association for Denman Island Marine Stewards (ADIMS).
The association has organized beach cleanups for 18 years in the Baynes Sound area, a narrow channel between Denman and Vancouver islands where more than half the province’s shellfish production takes place, Woodward said.
Last year, the stewardship group expanded the cleanup, with other community partners such as the K'ómoks Guardian Watchmen, to cover 180 kilometres of shoreline in the region after getting funding through the province’s Clean Coast, Clean Waters initiative.
Approximately 38 metric tonnes of garbage was hauled off the beaches over the course of a month and 90 per cent was related to the shellfish aquaculture industry, she said.
Plastic shellfish trays, buoys, shoreline predator prevention netting, rope, and Styrofoam used for float platforms that disintegrate into tiny irretrievable pieces are some of the greatest problems. The trash harms salmon habitat in estuaries, and poses entanglement risks to birds or other marine mammals, such as seals, sea lions and whales, Woodward added.
Much of the trash is the result of poorly secured gear from shellfish leases washing into the ocean, or a result of sloppy farming practices and maintenance, or derelict operations left to break up and float away, she said.
Ocean polluters should pay for cleanup
Previously, the stewardship group raised the funds or got donations in kind to do the cleanup, but communities or taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill to deal with the shellfish industry’s mess, Woodward said.
"If this were an oil spill, the government wouldn’t be paying for this,” said Dorrie Woodward of the Association for Denman Island Marine Stewards on using tax dollars to clean up the ongoing flow of plastic debris from the shellfish industry.
The federal government committed $8 million to its ghost gear recovery program on the country’s coasts, and B.C. has dedicated $18 million to its shoreline cleanups.
“We’re fed up. Polluters should pay,” Woodward said.
“As a marine stewardship group, of course, we would totally like to see no more plastics in the ocean,” she said.
“But those putting plastic in the ocean should be responsible for getting them back out.”
It’s comparable to cleaning up after other environmental disasters caused by industry, Woodward added.
“If this were an oil spill, the government wouldn’t be paying for this,” she said.
A significant amount of the marine debris collected this year was diverted for recycling, but the system has limits, and a significant amount of waste is directed to landfills or left to accumulate on beaches.
It appears DFO is prioritizing the shellfish industry over the health of the marine ecosystem, she added.
Shellfish growers association determined to address debris problem
Marine debris from the shellfish sector is an undeniable problem that needs resolving, said Nico Prins, the new executive director of the BC Shellfish Growers Association (BCSGA).
“The fact is, there is too much debris going into the water,” Prins said. “It’s something I don’t agree with and I don’t like, and quite frankly, it’s not necessary.”
There are a number of relatively easy measures growers can take immediately, such as putting up fencing on floating platforms to keep plastic gear from being knocked into the water by stormy weather or sea lions and other animals clambering around floating shellfish docks.
Or even better, excess equipment or trash could be stowed safely onshore.
The association, which represents 60 per cent of producers in the province, voluntarily launched a shellfish farm environmental program (SHEP) in March to curb the problem, he said.
In addition to having a significant environmental impact and being a source of conflict with neighbouring communities, the BCSGA board estimates it spends 50 per cent of its time dealing with debris issues.
The program’s goals include helping members meet a set of new rules by DFO to prevent marine debris that will come into force in stages by 2023. The regulations will act as some of the conditions necessary to obtain and operate a shellfish licence.
DFO enforcement of new rules critical
Shellfish operators will soon have to enclose any Styrofoam floats in a hard casing, inspect and dive beneath their platforms to retrieve debris annually, mark all their gear with identifying data, and self-report annually to demonstrate compliance or risk fines or the loss of their licence.
It’s always been a condition for a licence to keep debris out of the water, but the specific rules and making gear identifiable will hopefully make enforcement easier, said Prins.
The growers association pitches in during community cleanups, and plans to start a public access database with reports of equipment or debris, so the association can facilitate pick-ups and identify debris hot spots or problem operators.
By way of a carrot, the association is developing a sustainable certification seal for growers that meet the debris regulations.
The association doesn’t have authority to enforce the new regulations, but it will consider various sanctions, including ineligibility for BCSFA membership, Prins said.
But ultimately, the success of the new regulations is still dependent on DFO enforcement, he said.
“Our main goal is to assist our members to adhere to the condition of licence and solve their (debris) problems,” he said.
“But we do need the agency with the authority to go and enforce the conditions of licensing. And in fact, we welcome it.”
Abandoned shellfish farms a source of pollution
The problem with shellfish debris is not limited to Baynes Sound, said the co-ordinator of the shoreline cleanup in the Discovery Islands, which ended in December.
Plastics from the sector made up at least half of the 50 tonnes of debris pulled from the region’s beaches, said Breanne Quesnel of Spirit of the West Adventures, the tourism operation that secured funding for the cleanup.
Abandoned or derelict shellfish farms were a big source of debris on the shores of Quadra and Cortes islands, said Quesnel.
It was difficult to determine from provincial and federal websites who was responsible for a shellfish operation, and if it was active or not, she said.
DFO and the BCSGA did try to assist the cleanup operation, identifying leases and what cleanup crews could remove, she said.
“But some sites are showing as active leases in the government system, [and] there’s nobody really responsible for them,” Quesnel said.
“People have literally just completely left their operation, and walked away with docks and floats in the water and onshore.”
As a marine tour operator, Quesnel said her company must pay a deposit to use Crown land, which is forfeited and used to address problems if she doesn’t follow guidelines.
She’d like to see a deposit system or accountability measures in place to ensure cleanups take place if rules aren't met by shellfish operations.
Many of the active shellfish farmers in the region are working to solve the plastic problem, Quesnel said.
“I don’t want to tarnish them all,” she said. “But a portion of folks aren’t engaged, and we’re finding stuff that’s definitely aquaculture materials coming from somewhere.
“And DFO doesn’t seem to be stepping up.”
Balance must be struck between industry and environment
MP Lisa Marie Barron, NDP critic of fisheries, agreed a fix is necessary.
The sector produced nearly 6,700 tonnes of shellfish valued at $20 million in 2020.
“It’s an important industry for many of our coastal communities,” said Barron, who represents Nanaimo-Ladysmith on Vancouver Island
“But we also have to balance that with protecting our oceans, in particular when it comes to plastic pollution.”
The new regulations and government funds for cleanups are a good step, but more accountability is still needed to stop the flow of debris into ocean waters.
“Organizations that do this front-line work want to see a process in place where we're not having to be so reactionary,” she said.
There also needs to be more exploration of alternatives for plastics in the sector, she added.
“We need to be pushing the government to work with industry and those on the ground in our coastal communities to help this industry become waste-free,” she said.
Marine debris a federal priority
Reducing plastic waste and marine debris as well as protecting and regenerating Canada’s oceans are priorities for the federal government and Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray, said Murray’s press secretary Claire Teichman in an email.
DFO’s ghost gear program has successfully removed 739 tonnes of abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear from the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, Teichman said.
Under the same initiative, the BCSGA got $350,000 in 2020 to conduct dives to retrieve accumulated debris from the seabed under floating shellfish operations, resulting in the cleanup of 27 sites and the removal of 27 tonnes of garbage to date.
The association also received $1.1 million for the wide-scale replacement of Styrofoam floats on shellfish platforms with more environmentally friendly alternatives through the Fisheries and Aquaculture Clean Technology Adoption Program — which also funds aquaculture operators to test late-stage clean technologies, systems or processes.
However, Murray’s office did not clarify if DFO plans to dedicate more resources to inspections or enforcement of pending regulations in addition to subsidizing the industry’s cleanup.
DFO has failed to monitor or penalize problem shellfish operators for decades, Woodward said, noting repeated beach cleanups are just Band-Aid solutions.
Paying producers to deal with their trash on the public dime without any significant enforcement will only perpetuate the pollution problem, she said.
“It’s just a new revenue stream for the industry,” Woodward said.
“Why should our community be picking it up just because we don’t want to be stumbling over their debris on the beach, and because we care about all the other creatures that live here, too?”
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer