Descending below the waterline off the BC coast, knowing the only thing that separates you from the harsh realities of the Pacific Ocean are a thin layer of neoprene and a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) tank, the world is a different place. A beautiful place, where the bustle of the landlocked gives way to silence save for the rhthymic flow of bubbles each time you expel a breath.
A magical place, where flora and fauna give way to colourful, delicate marine life and mammals like whales that captivate when they grace us with a glimpse of their powerful presence.
A fragile place, where cause and effect are much more visible.
It is this place where Peter Mieras and his wife, Kathy Johnson, are at home. And it is this place that the couple, who own Rendezvous Diving in Rainy Bay—an idyllic cove in the Alberni Inlet—are fiercely protective of what lies beneath.
Mieras has gained a name for himself for his attention to marine conservation, whether it be six-gill shark research, annual lingcod counts for the Vancouver Aquarium or, lately, derelict fishing gear recovery.
In February, Mieras was named one of eight Coastal Ocean Award recipients, receiving the Conservation Volunteer Award during a gala at the Vancouver Aquarium.
“I was nominated (by West Coast Aquatic’s Sheena Falconer) because we are basically the only long-running, consistent derelict fishing gear removal program in B.C. for sure, and most likely Canada,” Mieras said.
Mieras dives many different spots in Barkley Sound, and he has seen derelict fishing nets that commercial gillnetters have lost or that have come detached, resting on reefs and killing sea life that becomes entangled in the net. He set about a few years ago to clear up the nets, setting free any living sea life and rescuing reefs from the garbage.
He’s asked divers to report nets they see while diving and is slowly building a database of where the derelict nets are. Mieras has built a program and process for removing the nets from where they are caught on reefs or other sensitive underwater areas. Freeing the nets is a delicate process: they are often tangled with marine life and caught up in kelp or other underwater plants. They are hard to see, so without a coordinated effort the nets are also a danger to the divers that go in to reclaim them.
“Without any government support we’re finding there’s some demand using the outline of the program as we’ve made it,” Mieras said. The Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society has contacted him for information on developing a similar program for the Fraser River. There is a dive outfitter in Nanaimo that has also taken on the program in that area.
“We’re starting to see there’s spots where the program spreads out. It’s organic, which is nice but it is slow.”
The best way for the program to work efficiently is to have the financial capacity to pay commercial divers to do the reclamation work. “Currently it’s all volunteer; there’s no payment.
“The only funding we get is sales from our DVD, Kelp and Critters (available at the Vancouver Aquarium as well as the Alberni Aquarium).”
Mieras has approached federal government officials for funding and hopes to work with an ocean pollution group to see if they will be more receptive. He would also like to see a widespread net recycling program set up, similar to one operating in Steveston, BC.
“It seems to be a topic nobody wants to touch,” he said.
Nobody wants to rock the commercial fishing fleet: but it’s not about punishing fishermen, he said. It’s about marking where a net has come loose from its floats, or part of it has been cut away. Maybe even starting a tagging system for nets so they can develop a better reporting system. It’s about conservation.
The reclaimed nets are cleaned then shipped to Slovenia or Denmark where there are companies that recycle materials for other uses such as industrial carpets. Any other pieces that are brought up to the surface during a reclamation—such as weights, floats, flashers or fish hooks—are cleaned and resold to help finance the reclamation project.
Nets also have a shelf life, and a recycling program would help keep them out of the landfill.
“It seems like the smaller artisanal fishermen, like gillnetters, are receptive to recycling, but larger, more corporate entities aren’t interested,” he said.
The biggest takeaway for Mieras at the Coastal Ocean Awards, besides networking with other winners—all people who are leaders in aquatic research, technology, communication and conservation—was spreading the word about his derelict fishing gear retrieval program.
“We’re grateful for the help of the local DFO (Fisheries Canada) and the gillnet fishermen that fish in Area 23,” said Mieras. “Our dream is to have a province-wide pilot—an actual running program throughout the province where we can deal with derelict nets.
“The ultimate dream is to have a national program where all the provinces that have fisheries, whether it’s in oceans, in rivers or a lake, contract an organization or team that can take care of any derelict fishing gear,” he said.