October 27th, 2023 | By Oriana Smy
The Ocean Decade (2021-2030) aims to tackle many different challenges and goals addressing global issues that are impacting the world’s ocean. United Nations Endorsed Decade Actions are made up of contributions, programs, projects, and activities, and at the heart of these Actions are the people working towards solutions to global ocean challenges at the local level.
As we dive into some of the Decade Actions in the Northeast Pacific region, we want to introduce two people from the Malahat Nation dedicating their time to the Salish Sea Ghost Gear Project. Andre Goldsmith is a Marine Stewardship Coordinator for the project, and a member of the Malahat Nation, and Desiree Bulger, is the Acting Director of the Nation’s Environment Department.
This UN Ocean Decade endorsed project is working on mapping areas within the Malahat Nation’s traditional territory in the Salish Sea, and is currently funded under Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO)’s Ghost Gear Fund.
The Malahat Stewardship Team is a division of the Nation’s Environment Department and has been working on the water to retrieve derelict fishing gear and monitor damaged habitats. Andre’s role as a Stewardship Coordinator includes helping out with the ghost gear surveys that are conducted within the Saanich Inlet, and the data processes involved with mapping this derelict gear.
Andre and the Stewardship Team conduct underwater surveys with their Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to seek sunken traps or rope, and then retrieve the derelict gear they find. The ROV has the capabilities of retrieving the gear with a claw-like apparatus. “We call her ‘Princess’ because she’s pretty temperamental - Andre came up with that,” Desiree laughs.
“The direct contributions to restoring the marine environment and conserving habitats will be achieved through the removal of derelict gear,” Andre shares, as he illuminates the importance of this work.
When I asked how long this program has been running, Desiree noted that this particular project began in 2021, with other overlapping projects such as fisheries surveys beginning earlier. Andre was sure to mention that although this project may only be a few years in, the Malahat Nation has been caring for the environment for a very, very long time.
“We aim to mitigate the ecological impacts of derelict fishing gear in the Salish Sea,” he adds, to outline the overarching goals of the project. “We survey and gather information on distribution, to clean up gear where we can.”
The term “ghost gear” is commonly used to identify abandoned, discarded, or otherwise lost fishing gear (ADLFG). The threats of this gear are many. It not only pollutes the marine environment, with much of the gear composed of plastics, but also impacts culturally-sensitive areas and continues to catch marine species after it has been disarticulated from its original use and users.
The Malahat Nation’s methods for tackling this problem incorporates both Western and Indigenous Knowledge, inclusive of community engagement components. By mapping and improving high-value habitat influenced by derelict fishing gear, the Nation is addressing the UN Ocean Decade’s following Challenges:
Challenge 1: Beat and Understand Marine Pollution,
Challenge 2: Protect and Restore Ecosystems and Biodiversity,
Challenge 6: Increase Community Resilience to Ocean Hazards, and
Challenge 10: Change Humanity’s Relationship With the Ocean.
Malahat’s Stewardship Team determines target areas of higher fishing pressure, informed by years of fishing-effort survey data recorded and maintained by the Nation. Of particular interest is the co-occurrence of ghost gear with culturally and ecologically important areas, such as eelgrass, kelp beds, and glass sponge reefs.
Some areas which may be more vulnerable to gear loss include rocky areas where gear tends to get snagged on the seafloor, or in shipping lanes where recreational fishers may not be aware of traffic patterns. In those cases, vessels run right over recreational fishing gear and separates the buoys from the traps and rope, causing it to relocate and making it hard to find.
As the Saanich Inlet is fairly sheltered, derelict debris from international sources rarely drift into these waters, although it does happen occasionally. Something that has come to light through the ghost gear surveys is that most of the gear is from local recreational fishers.
The Malahat Nation is trying to determine what impacts this gear may be having on local fish stocks. “We’ve noticed big declines in fisheries over the years and things aren’t the way they used to be,” Desiree informs me.
In addition to the ghost gear survey and removal program, the Nation is conducting crab surveys in their territory. These crab surveys help to inform the distribution and presence of crab species, and can contribute to understanding whether there are correlations between derelict gear locations and overlapping crab abundance data year to year.
“It’s still early in marine stewardship data collection as we’ve only been doing this for two years, so we need more data to determine conclusive correlations,” Desiree adds, to highlight the need to carry on this program beyond its expected funding end date of March 2024. “We’re trying to look at other funding streams to use the capacity we’ve built to continue this work.”
Although already experienced mariners, their team was able to expand upon their existing skill sets to conduct this work in their territory. Members of the Stewardship Team were trained on the technical aspects of operating an ROV and data collection methods for the Ghost Gear Project. The team learned how to operate this new technology inclusive of maneuvering the mechanized arm at varying depths, as well as applying the mapping data to determine patterns and trends.
“It means a lot to be part of this project. We’re cleaning up other people’s mess. It is definitely needed work and a feel-good project,” adds Andre.
Once the gear is recovered, an assessment is done to decide if it is salvageable. The next steps are to either return the gear to the original owner if identifiable tags or markers are found, or it is distributed to community members to contribute to local fishing needs. Any gear that isn’t salvageable or reclaimed gets recycled if possible, otherwise it goes to the landfill.
Although remediation and mitigation is necessary to remove this gear from the marine environment, prevention is a key priority for the Nation to stop it from getting into the water to begin with, and public education is a big part of that. “One of the biggest things that we’re trying to get at with this project is to change people’s behaviour,” Desiree notes.
“When the usable gear is returned or re-distributed to the fishing community, we always make sure to include little information packets on how to fish responsibly so that you don’t lose your gear again,” she adds. “We want people to know they can come to us and let us know where they’ve lost gear so we can try and recover it and return it to the owner directly.”
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has a voluntary/mandatory reporting system for lost gear. If a commercial fisherman loses their gear, they must voluntarily report it to this federal database. There is no penalty for lost gear, as it’s usually unintended and a result of external factors, such as inclement weather or being fouled on the seafloor.
This reporting system isn’t perfect but does provide an opportunity for the federal government to better understand this issue, and realize why funding is necessary and where gaps in the system may exist. This system also provides the fishermen with an opportunity to retrieve their gear if recovered. If this gear washes ashore or interacts with other fishing or boating activity, and is determined to not have been reported, there may be punitive action in this scenario.
The system is less rigid for recreational fishers as the buoys are often unmarked and regular DFO enforcement is lacking. On the public engagement front, the Nation has installed signs at the Mill Bay Marina to inform fishers on how to properly mark their traps and buoys, along with adding contact information for retrieval efforts.
This is not intended to penalize fishermen, but rather to work together towards recovery and ultimately prevention. Gear costs money and fishermen do not want to lose their equipment, nor do they want to compete with discarded gear for future-catch yields.
“When we’re on the dock, or out on the boat with our ROV we have conversations with fishermen who tell us where they’ve lost gear and that’s been really helpful,” Andre tells me. “Word of mouth recommendations are very effective for finding gear,” he adds.
Another goal of this project is to identify areas that might need extra protection. Andre and Desiree mention the culturally sensitive sites in Malahat Territory such as the clam gardens. “It would be really devastating if the nets and rope and traps were covering that area and damaging the species there,” Andre tells me with concern.
“Malahat is contributing to some input on protected areas, but it’s still early stages as we don’t have enough data to make a confident recommendation yet,” Desiree notes, about the monitoring work they’re doing in these sensitive areas. “I think at least another couple of years of coverage would be very helpful, to see how much change is occurring year to year.”
One of the greatest challenges with this work is the amount of time it takes to train and practice to be successful, and then have the piecemeal funding run out. “Whether or not we have funding for remediation, I think the best thing to do is prevent the gear from getting lost in the first place,” says Desiree. “It’s the education piece that’s so important so people know to be stewards of the environment and to fish properly.”
The Malahat Nation hosts a few community events every year to distribute gear and get together to share knowledge and information on the project. Crab is served and booths are set out to present the survey maps and share retrieval success stories.
Desiree noted the Nation’s interest in ongoing conversations about the Stewardship Team taking on some of the enforcement tasks alongside DFO. This issue needs more eyes and ears on the water and for the Nation to have the authority to pull problem traps before they become detached could be very beneficial. “We currently don’t have the permissions to do that, so we can’t deal with them responsibly,” she adds.
There is potential to collaborate with other stewardship teams working on the water in the Salish Sea, such as the Gulf Islands National Parks Reserve. This area is also in the development stage for a National Marine Conservation Area Reserve (NMCAR). The Nation hopes that a ghost gear program and associated long-term funding could be tied into that if that process is successful.
“I hope in the near future we can have little to no debris at the bottom of the seafloor,” Andre concludes. “And to have all species thriving and living in the ocean free of harm. It’s a dream at the moment, but we’re working towards it.”
The Malahat Nation is currently seeking new funding opportunities to continue this work to cover operational costs, such as staff time and maintenance of equipment. “There are a lot of impacts going on in the environment. And when we have the opportunity to tackle stressors like ghost gear, we need to address those,” Desiree notes. “Projects like the ghost gear fund hire people like Malahat, because they have the traditional knowledge to know where these areas of interest are to protect first.”