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Post-Fiona harbour cleanup

Volunteers and harvesters pull debris from the waters; impact on lobster fishery

From left: Trevor Croft, Shawn Bath, Staunene Whelan of Clean Harbours Initiative based in Twillingate came to help pull debris out of the Port aux Basques harbour in the weeks following post-tropical depression Fiona. – © René J. Roy / Wreckhouse Press Incorporated

By René J. Roy, Editor-in-Chief

PORT AUX BASQUES — Help during Hurricane Fiona has come in all forms, from people within and outside the community. Within the province, Shawn Bath, founder of Clean Harbours Initiative in Twillingate, was one of those who came across the island to help in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

“I spent 21 years as a commercial diver fishing for sea urchins, and every year we dove around the local harbour picking sea urchins, and half the time you were picking them off of garbage: rubber tires, fishing gear, rubber clothes, whatever is thrown overboard,” said Bath. “All these years, I would just think that eventually the government is going to start cleaning this up, somebody is going to have to have a program to clean this up, but I got ready to retire from sea urchin diving and nobody had come up with a plan to clean up none of the stuff, so I thought maybe I will be the one to start it, and I started Clean Harbours Initiative back in 2018.”

The company has accomplished quite a bit since then.

“We had 3,500 tires taken out of the water so far and over 200,000 pounds of trash before we came here. We’ve had 80,000 pounds taken out of here in the last two weeks. Mind you, a lot of this is roofs with shingles on it, creosote shingles, everything, all the debris that blew off the shoreline.”

Bath didn’t hesitate when deciding to come to Port aux Basques to assist with the cleanup.

“This is what we do. We are Clean Harbours Initiative. We spend our time cleaning up the harbours around Newfoundland and here, all of a sudden, you’re hit with one of the worst storms ever to hit Newfoundland, and we knew when we saw the storm coming that, if it hit here, there was going to be a lot of damage,” said Bath. “So we started thinking about what we were going to do and how we were going to go about getting the funding, and once it made landfall here, we started putting things into play to get over.”

Part of what they did was open some fundraising avenues.

“We put a new GoFundMe up and we put it on Facebook that we needed money to travel, we needed gas money, food money, whatever, and first when we started posting stuff, we had no money whatsoever for this trip,” said Bath. “We had about $2,000 in one, $500-600 in another one, and about $1,000 in e-transfers. I’d say, $3,500 or so to get us over here.”

Bath said they were working on another contract when they made the decision to come to Port aux Basques, but there was no rush on it so they were able to put it on hold temporarily.

“We raised enough money in about 24 hours to get us over here and set us up for two weeks and that was the goal, to get over for two weeks and see what was needed after. We figured once we get here for two weeks that hopefully the government will have some funding by then to keep us here, because I knew there was going to be more than a couple of weeks work here,” said Bath.

When they were gearing up to make the trip, Bath said a friend of his asked him to come to the gas station because a couple of them wanted to give them a jerry can of gas for the drive across the island.

“When we got there, they had a little cardboard sign made up, ‘gassing up for Southwest Coast cleanup’. They wanted a picture taken with their sign because they were donating two jerry cans of gas,” said Bath. “While we’re talking to them, people are driving by, seeing these ladies with their sign, people are getting out of their vehicles asking us if we’ve got another jerry can. By the time we finished up their jerry cans of gas, I think we had five or six jerry cans at the one gas station. That was a tank of gas. That will get one vehicle halfway across, and I thought this is going to work!”

Bath said they took the sign and said he was going to photograph people with the sign all across the island, and that’s what they did.

“All in all, we had four vehicles come across, and I think we had three of them paid for with all the gas cans that were donated to us, maybe three and a quarter.”

Upon arriving in Port aux Basques, Bath and his team were unprepared for the amount of devastation they witnessed.

“It was mind blowing. It was overwhelming. I had never been in a place like this. You see it on television down in Florida and Haiti and places like that, but you’re in your own province here,” recalled Bath. “It made me feel good, the fact that we were here and we had the tools and stuff to help out. The next morning, a local guy came and took me for a tour, showed me all the houses that were knocked down, all the wharves, all the devastation, and that just cemented in my mind that we made the right move. We did the right thing.”

Bath and his team picked up donations along the way and dropped it all off to the Lions Club the evening they arrived, and the next morning they got to work. Their goal was to spend time in every community, not just in Port aux Basques, doing their best to assist with the cleanup effort.

Bath explained that they found old nets and items that had been lost for years, likely doing more damage than people realized.

“One net we hauled in had six lobsters in it. That had been in the water five or ten years, and had probably killed 400 or 500 lobsters in the last five or ten years,” said Bath. “All over this area around here, according to what the fishermen are telling me, almost every stage was lost and they had around 60 or 70 nets in every stage, and if that’s the case, from Stephenville to here, you’re probably looking at 1,000 or 2,000 nets in the water. If you have 2,000 nets in the water, each one killing 100 lobsters a year, that’s going to decimate the lobster fishery around here, and there’s a really robust lobster fishery here.”

Bath said with the amount of debris in the water, cleaning it all up could last well into the summer months of 2023.

Remaining in Port aux Basques for that length of time, without proper dedicated funding, is not something Clean Harbours Initiative will be able to do. In fact, the monies they had collected were only for expenses, and the crew worked for free. Trevor Croft, Mayor of Witless Bay who came down with Clean Harbours Initiative, said they aren’t quite sure why they haven’t received funding from the government, but they know it is a difficult process.

“There’s a lot of bureaucracy that has to go on within government. There’s a lot more to it than just saying ‘yes, we’ll give you money,’ or ‘no, we can’t,’ because everybody has their hand in the pot one way or another,” said Croft. “I’m a municipal mayor on the other side of the island, and if we do a contract out to a company, a certain percentage has to go out to this thing and that thing and that thing. It has to be spread out between six or seven companies by the time the work actually gets done, and we are only putting up a rock wall.”

MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – LaPoile) said seeing this work being done is great.

“I’m interested in doing whatever I can to assist, whether it’s within our government, the federal government, private stakeholders, interested parties. I think there is enough work for multiple groups and I just like to see work done and I’m happy to see that it’s done.”

Parsons believes the issue of debris in the harbours is something that has been going on for quite some time anyway.

“Take Fiona out of the equation and we have, I think, an issue on our coastline when it comes to ghost nets, traps, ghost gear, and then you throw in Fiona. The damage that it did – I’m hearing stories about the amount of sea creatures that were tossed up into the Channel Head lighthouse. That’s not a new issue. It’s a very real and pre-existing issue. There’s a lot of work and analysis going on about that and this situation, if anything, has exacerbated it and maybe, again, given a very stark reminder that we need to be looking into this more deeply,” said Parsons. “That being said, I think this is primarily a DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada) issue. I don’t think everything falls into the purview of the federal government, not that we don’t take responsibility.”

Sherry Glynn, FFAW-Unifor Staff Representative confirmed that some of the Southwest coast harvesters have expressed concerns about the impact of post-tropical depression Fiona from a couple of angles. Specifically, Glynn cited the following:

• “They have noted concern about the impact on the bottom during the hurricane itself. i.e., the wave energy was so significant that it shifted ground, rocks, etc., that have been there as long as they can remember. Given that lobsters reside along the coast, what sort of a beating did lobsters take during the storm? • What impact will come from sediment and rock being dispersed during the storm? • How will the impact from land-based debris being washed into the ocean impact lobsters and lobster habitat? This includes infrastructure, as well as gear. Lobsters have been found in damaged pots that harvesters have been retrieving and in other stored gear that was washed away. It’s important to note that unlike other parts of Atlantic Canada, we don’t have any lobster fisheries open at that time of the year. Any gear that ended up in the water came from on land.”

Glynn said the status of the clean-up differs throughout the affected areas, including those resettled.

“Immediately following the hurricane, harvesters took it upon themselves to collect debris from the water and bring it ashore. There was also a government response, involving heavy equipment removing debris from the shoreline and adjacent water. However, there are several resettled communities in the region that are used during the season by harvesters where a significant amount of debris remains in the water.”

The longer term impact on the lobster industry remain unknown.

“A couple of things that come to mind are: the impact of debris and sedimentation on lobster and their habitat; the impact of lost gear on the resource; are there new hazards to navigation that could impact harvesters’ access to fishing grounds/landing sites?” FFAW has confirmed that funding for some future cleanup is available.

“Funding has been made available for gear retrieval in the affected area. We applied for and have been approved for funding to carry out some of this work. Anecdotally we’ve heard that catch rates were very good during a survey done by DFO following Fiona, but you should contact DFO directly for more information on that.“

After three weeks of media requests, DFO failed to respond to repeated email and telephone inquiries in time for publication.

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