Sheila Malcolmson with the Ladysmith RCMP marine unit (Submitted photo)

Nanaimo MLA Sheila Malcolmson tours Ladysmith waters as part of NDP marine debris consultation

The B.C. NDP recently announced a public consultation on how to tackle the issue of marine debris

Nanaimo MLA Sheila Malcolmson toured the waters around Ladysmith with RCMP on Friday to assess risks posed by marine debris.

The B.C. NDP recently announced a public consultation to gain feedback from British Columbians on how to tackle the issue of marine debris and plastic pollutants in B.C. waterways.

In April, Malcolmson was appointed as a special advisor to George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change for the B.C. NDP. Malcolmson has been outspoken about the issue of marine debris, and abandoned vessels in particular.

RELATED: Nanaimo MLA named B.C. government’s special advisor on abandoned vessels

During her time in parliament, Malcolmson tabled a private members bill that attempted to outline clear procedures for dealing with abandoned vessels. Her bill was ultimately voted down by the Liberal government. The Liberals passed the Wrecked, Abandoned, or Hazardous Vessels Act in 2019. Transport Canada also announced $1.3 million in funding to clean up 21 abandoned vessels in Newfoundland and B.C. Malcolmson was an outspoken critic of the Liberal legislation, and called their approach a disappointment.

“The federal legislation, in the end, focused on penalties and fines as a way of targeting abandoned vessels,” Malcolmson said. “What we heard today on the vessel with the RCMP marine unit confirmed that the people that have abandoned their vessels tend not to have registered them.”

This lack of registration impacts the effectiveness of fines as a deterrent. Tracking down owners of abandoned vessels is a time consuming and costly endeavour. Often times, the costs to track down owners of abandoned vessels outweigh the potential to remediate clean up costs. To date, only a small number of vessels have been cleaned up under the federal program, while thousands of vessels have yet to be dealt with.

“We are now talking with people in communities about whether we can use some of our provincial tools to prevent people from abandoning their boats in the first place,” Malcolmson said.

Rather than fining owners of abandoned vessels, Malcolmson suggests a vessel registration system similar to vehicle registration. The B.C. NDP is also looking at approaches that have proven successful in Washington and Oregon, such as a “cash for clunkers” program that would give boat owners money for their aging ships. The Union of B.C. Municipalities and several other municipal organizations have called for the implementation of such a program.

A key part of fighting marine debris is recycling. Malcolmson has also been tasked with looking at opportunities to recycle fibreglass from salvaged boats. Currently, fibreglass is treated as a waste product and takes up space in B.C. landfills.

The NDP is also trying to tackle the issue of plastic pollution in waterways. Malcolmson expressed concern over how plastics and micro plastics break down in marine environments. Plastics find their way into the bodies of marine animals, and subsequently find their way into human bodies. Photos of marine animals suffering from the effects of plastic pollution have gone viral.

“The public outcry about that is phenomenal,” Malcolmson said. “When [minister Heyman] was doing consultation on climate change, members of the public kept talking about plastics. There is a climate change connection there… but it really did tell us as a government that the public is really concerned, and they want us to use the tools we have as a provincial government to look at prevention.”

Actual cleanup efforts and physical removal of marine debris is out of the provincial government’s jurisdiction. That responsibility rests solely with the federal government. With that in mind, the NDP is looking at broadening deposit legislation on single use plastics to create incentives for people to return recyclable items. They are also looking at placing more responsibility on corporations to pay for the cost of recycling. A large issue in terms of plastic marine debris is ocean nets. Abandoned fishing equipment one of the main pollutants responsible for the deaths of marine life.

RELATED: Huge trash-collecting boom in Pacific Ocean breaks apart

“It might be that we’re able to look at our ability as a provincial government to require manufacturers and sellers of those products to take an end of life recycling responsibility,” Malcolmson said. “We don’t know whether those are within our power, and whether even if it’s a fit for British Colubmia, depending on where it is that people are buying their fishing nets.”

The NDP will consult the public before considering what items and industries to target. Recent attempts to ban plastic straws have seen outcry from many in the disabled community, as plastic straws are medically necessary for many people with disabilities.

“The exemptions are extremely important, and that’s one of the ones that’s front of mind. We’re also conscious too that although plastic straws have become emblematic, they are actually a small slice of the ocean plastics pollution problem,” Malcolmson said.

“That’s partly what the consultation this summer will do is dig in more on what are the biggest problems, what are the pieces that we can aim squarely at the manufacturer or the corporate polluter and have the most impact on the environment while minimizing the impact on the consumer.”

Malcolmson thanked community volunteer organizations across the province for their cleanup efforts over the years. She said the NDP is listening to their suggestions, and will work with them to prevent marine debris pollution.

“We can’t, as a society, continue to rely on volunteers to deal with the pollution problem that is ultimately a corporate responsibility,” Malcolmson said.

Consultations on a marine debris and recycling strategy will continue throughout the summer. Malcolmson will present her findings at the meeting of the Union of B.C. Municipalities at the end of September. Pilot programs are expected to begin rolling out to B.C. municipalities by next summer at the earliest.

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