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Picking up the past

Clean Harbour Initiatives hauls up decades old fishing gear

The Clean Harbour Initiative team. From left: Trevor Croft, Manager; Grace Corrigan, Media Manager; and Sean Bath, Founder. – © René Roy / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

By René Roy Editor-in-Chief

SOUTHWEST COAST — Clean Harbours Initiative came to the region shortly after Hurricane Fiona landed on Sept. 24, 2021, and did seven weeks of volunteering, helping to clean up that debris. Thanks to a government grant, Clean Harbours Initiative is back, but in a different capacity. Instead of focusing on debris and shore cleanup, they are dragging the harbours to remove ghost gear. That means any type of fishing equipment or materials that have been abandoned, lost or discarded, and is the most harmful form of marine debris. Founder Sean Bath said their endeavour, which began in October, has been quite successful thus far. “It’s going good when we get the weather. Obviously the weather in Port aux Basques is a hindrance with what we’re trying to do because, anytime you’re on the water, you need decent winds. That being said, we’re still getting out, on average, three times a week, which is not bad. We are recovering probably 4,000 pounds a week on average. If the weather was allowing it, we would be out five-or-six times a week and get 6 to 8,000 pounds, but you can only do what you can do.” Because of the grant, their focus has shifted away from hurricane debris clean up.

“We came over and spent seven weeks doing appliances, pieces of houses, pieces of wharves, and now we’ll occasionally pick up a piece of a wharf or a roof when it is hazardous for shipping, but after seven weeks of volunteering we were lucky enough to get a little grant from the government to keep us here until March 31st, and in that time we had to concentrate on ghost gear because that’s what the grant was for,” explained Bath. “So we’ve got to remove ropes, nets, pots, that kind of thing. We’re out in Rose Blanche now and we picked up most of the debris from Fiona, the nets and trawlers on the surface, but we’re dragging for more now. We’ve got a little dragger, about three feet long that digs six or seven inches into the bottom, and every time you drag it over the bottom, even if you don’t see anything when you look down, you pull up old trawl lines, some that were lost 15 or 20 years ago, and they are down there in the thousands.” A lot of the ghost gear the group is retrieving is destined for the landfill. “What we’re hauling up right now is not good for anything. You can’t really recycle it because it’s just trash. Some of the ropes can be used for fencing and things like that, but very few people want it. It’s full of mud and it reeks, and it’s a pretty intense process to get it cleaned.” Clean Harbour Initiative must also document everything they pull up from the harbours. “They want the weight and the length of the rope,” explained Bath. “Now, can you imagine 10,000 pounds of rope all woven together over the last 50 years? And this is rope smaller than your small finger, quarter inch rope and stuff. They want the estimated length of that rope, so we’re giving them a wild guess, basically, of what it is for length, but the weights we can get within 100 pounds a day, but the length, there’s no way to be accurate on that.” Because of the vast amount of ghost gear littering the bottom of the harbours, the main focus has remained down the coastline as opposed to Port aux Basques. “There’s at least five years’ worth of work cleaning up all these little harbours. We just applied for more funding and fingers crossed we are going to get it. That will keep us going for another year and, if we get that, sometime this summer, we will be in Port aux Basques with a team dragging and diving, whatever the case might be.” The hope is that, with additional funding, they will be able to expand the target areas. “This year coming, if we get the grant we’ve applied for, it will be another year doing ghost gear. If we can get some funding from another group, we have a group working with us, saying they’re going to fund us for awhile. If that comes through, we will have a crew come in to do shoreline cleanups, plastics and wood, those types of debris.” Funding is essential for the non-profit organization to continue the work they do, and one grant received in December 2021 came from the most unlikely of places. “Just before Christmas, Lush Cosmetics reached out to us. I didn’t really know they had a grant available, but through a friend they reached out to us because they knew we were looking for an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle ), so they reached out to us and said they had a grant program in place, and they gave us $15,000 to purchase our ROV so I wouldn’t have to be getting into the water diving by myself,” said Bath. “I can stand on the wharf now. I can send the ROV into the water and film the area that we’re going to be cleaning rather than before, where I would swim down with a camera on my head or in my hand and film the debris so we can take a look at it and decide the best way to go at it. Now I don’t have to do that because I can send the ROV in. It’s an underwater drone with a camera and a grab arm, all kinds of stuff on it.” A lot of Bath’s own wages are currently going back into the company to help pay for expenses that pop up outside of any grant funding, such as food and accommodations. It’s why Clean Harbours Initiative has built and continues to fundraise through their GoFundMe page, which can be located on Sean Bath’s personal Facebook page, because the donations save them when unforeseen expenses happen. “We’ve got money from DFO, but every dime out of these grants has to be accounted for, everything is allocated before you get it and you can’t just spend it on whatever. With these cleanups, so many things are always coming up that you have to spend money on that’s not even in our grant,” said Bath. “I’ve got a Ford F150 at a gas station in Bay Roberts now, and it cost $7,737 to get it repaired because the chassis broke off and the transmission was gone. We hadn’t been able to afford to get that stuff done for awhile, but it’s in the garage now and we’re waiting to get the money raised somehow for that. We’re reaching out to all the groups, but they need to have a meeting and it’s a bit down the road before you get any help. So if there’s anyone who is interested in helping pick up the tab for that garage bill, it would be so greatly appreciated.” Nikita Roberts, Harbour Supervisor with the Harbour Authority in Port aux Basques is grateful for the organization’s help because the debris remains a very real concern. “We are so lucky to have Sean here with Clean Harbours Initiative to help clean up a lot of debris in the water, but boaters definitely need to keep an eye out when they’re going out, especially with the recreational fishery,” said Roberts. “The main risk, especially with ghost gear, is marine species can get entangled in it, which causes a huge environmental risk, as well as a risk to boaters. If you’ve got debris floating in the ocean, especially if marine species are tangled in it as well, it can get tangled in your boat, your propeller. It can cause damage to your boat or cause your boat to sink, especially the larger pieces of debris.” There are steps people can take to lower the risk for themselves and others on the water. “My main recommendation would be to report anything you do see, if you see larger pieces of debris floating around or there are any potential dangers, report it to someone so we can get it removed. You can call the Harbour Authority at 694-2484 or you can report it to the Coast Guard.” Debris in the harbour has always been a significant concern. The severe damage that resulted from the hurricane has only served to exacerbate that problem. “Every year we do a harbour cleanup and even before Fiona there was a lot of debris that you wouldn’t believe under the surface of our harbours. We’ve pulled up TVs, computers, car parts, bicycles. It’s all getting dumped, especially now, maybe because of the new waste management facility and people not wanting to pay, so you see a lot more people dumping garbage where they’re not supposed to,” said Roberts. On June 8, World Oceans Day, the hope is to have another clean up. “We’re trying to partner with a few people to hopefully do another dive where we have divers go down and clean up some of the debris on the ocean floor in the harbours. Because of COVID it was cancelled for a couple of years, but we are hoping to get back at it this year.”

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