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Funding cuts put ghost gear retrieval in jeopardy

No explanation, no solution, not acceptable, says Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns

A multi-million-dollar funding cut will harm coastal restoration projects on the west coast, says Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns. And the timing—and secrecy—of the cut couldn’t have come at a more puzzling time, he added.

Ottawa, Ontario recently played host to the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop an international, legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. Johns said it was just after the INC-4 session that he discovered the ghost gear retrieval fund was cut. No public announcement was made.

Ghost gear is defined as lost or discarded fishing gear that floats in the ocean, lands on the ocean floor or washes up on coastlines. It is considered one of the biggest threats of ocean plastic pollution.

The ghost gear and derelict fishing gear fund was a $10-million fund that contributed to restoration projects on both the east and west coasts. Johns discovered that the fund has not been included in the 2024 budget.

“It was actually getting traction on our coasts, especially in British Columbia. Supporting the restoration economy, employing Indigenous people coast to coast to coast,” he said, raising the issue in the House of Commons. “It was a world-class program.”

“Everybody has been caught off guard.”

On Earth Day, April 22, 2024, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Diane Lebouthillier, touted the work that was completed with funding from the ghost gear retrieval fund. The $30 million Hurricane Fiona Ghost Gear Fund, launched in 2022, contributed to the retrieval of more than 22,205 units, or 695 tonnes of gear lost during the hurricane on the east coast. Nearly 500 kilometres worth of rope was also retrieved in areas hardest hit by the hurricane, according to DFO statistics. The ghost gear fund contributed a total of $58.3 million to 144 projects from 2020 to 2024 in Canada.

“Ghost gear threatens the sustainability of fisheries, which harms the economic prosperity of coastal communities,” Lebouthillier said in a statement. “Tackling ghost gear is a group effort, and I look forward to continue working together with harvesters and other partners.”

A DFO spokesperson said in a press release that Fisheries and Oceans Canada is working on an action plan to prevent fishing gear loss in the future.

READ: An ocean menace: Study finds ghost gear capturing species at risk and lobster

READ: Ghost gear project scopes out floor of Alberni Harbour

READ: Canada signs global pact to help rid world’s oceans of abandoned fishing gear

Johns said he isn’t getting any answers from the federal government or DFO about these plans or future funding. “We’re not getting any answers, no communication from DFO,” he said, and “DFO isn’t recognizing the importance of (already developed) infrastructure.”

Johns cited marine debris depots set up in communities in his riding, such as Ucluelet, Cumberland and Powell River. “All this infrastructure is there for boats and removal equipment and everybody’s kind of wondering what’s going on.”

Canada has made several international commitments to address ghost gear, including the United Nations Environment Program’s Global Partnership on Plastic Pollution and Marine Litter and the Global Ghost Gear Initiative. In 2018, when Canada joined the global alliance, measurements showed fishing nets made up almost half the weight of the 80,000-tonne Great Pacific Garbage Patch, described by the Canadian Press as a soupy mess of broken down bits of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. At the time, the patch was considered to be bigger than the province of Quebec.

World Animal Protection Canada said at the time that lost gear is one of the biggest hazards for marine life.

Johns said given these commitments and statistics, he doesn’t understand why the federal government would suddenly cut funding without any alternative in place.

“Since 2018, coastal groups with local knowledge have been funded under this program and have done enormous service to our coastal communities and our planet through the removal of thousands of tonnes of ghost gear,” Johns said.

“It’s critical we mitigate the effects of ghost gear. The impact on food security and our blue economy…it’s significant.”

READ: PROGRESS 2023: Community of Port Alberni poised to make the switch from forests to ocean

Joshua Charleson of the Hesquiaht First Nation is the incoming executive director for Coastal Restoration Society (CRS), based in Port Alberni. Charleson as well as representatives from Vancouver Island-based Surfrider Foundation and Ocean Legacy Foundation from Richmond, B.C. joined Johns in Ottawa for INC-4, to share what their organizations are doing to clean up plastics from the Pacific Ocean.

The ghost gear retrieval program, among others run by CRS, created 200 new jobs on B.C.’s coast, allowed CRS to hire 100 sub-contractors and clean up more than 1,000 kilometres of shoreline. The loss of federal funding won’t sink CRS, but its effect will be significant, he said.

“It reduces our capacity a lot.” Ghost gear retrieval is a specialized skill requiring commercial divers, special equipment, barges and even helicopters to help remove marine debris from remote areas of coastline. Funding has allowed CRS to create a specialized training program, and losing the funding makes it difficult to hire trained employees.

“It really reduces our capacity to do big work.”

In the past three years Coastal Restoration Society has removed 3.1 million kilograms of ghost gear from west coast waters, removed 188 derelict vessels and cleaned up nine abandoned aquaculture sites.

Funding such as the ghost gear retrieval fund allowed CRS to do “boots on the ground” work that Canada has committed to. Now Charleson—who joined Johns in Ottawa for talks last month—has to spend time seeking new funding sources. The CRS typically makes 50-60 applications to different funds every year in order to keep operating. Charleson has received support from the B.C. provincial government and has talked with member nations to see how restoration work fits into their community revitalization plans.

Coastal Restoration Society is trying to build a transitional framework from resource extraction to restoration—creating employment for those who have lost their forestry or fishing jobs over the past few years. However, they need sustained, multi-year funding if they are to be successful, Charleson said.

“For so long we’ve disregarded the restoration side of things; we were focused on extraction. We need to create that balance.” Restoration and remediation should be happening alongside industry, he added. “Our slogan is ‘balance ecology and economy.’

“We have generations of work to do” to clean up the oceans, he said.

“It’s going to take a lot longer than the three years we got from the fund. We are trying to build a restoration economy with this work.”

RELATED: What lies beneath: West coast’s Peter Mieras leads the way for marine conservation

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I have been the Alberni Valley News editor since August 2006.
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