How it Started; Where it’s Going

An old fishing net lies heaped in a pile on a battered forklift skid, its once rich colours faded, its once busy life nearly ended. Dozens more surround it, being weathered by the coastal elements, season after season, year after year. Their owners have no further use for them, so they remain neglected, nearly forgotten. Life goes on, years pass, the harbour changes around them, but the nets remain.

All along the coast, wherever fishing has a history, this problem persists. But what to do with them? Generally, cheap storage rates keep them in stasis, while they continue to pile up. The nets themselves aren’t useful for much other than what they were designed for – or so we thought.

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Here at Steveston Harbour, we’ve had end of life fishing nets accumulating for some time, and for years, the best solution available to us has been to bury them at landfills, which is costly and not a very ecologically friendly method of disposal. The only other viable alternative is incineration, which is also costly and raises its own environmental concerns. But what if there was a better way? What if there was a way to recycle these nets into a useful, sustainable product rather than filling the ground or the sea with netting or the air with harmful chemicals? Finally, we have a solution.

The inspiration for this project started with another project on the other side of the world called Net-Works™. Interface Inc., the largest manufacturer of carpet tile in the world, and Aquafil, one of the preeminent fibre manufacturers / recyclers in the world, teamed up in their mutual quest for sustainability and developed a partnership to ensure that their products are developed and produced using the most sustainable materials and methods possible. One of their joint efforts involves Interface recovering old and discarded fishing nets in the area of Danajon Bank in the Philippines before shipping them to Aquafil’s ECONYL® Regeneration System in Slovenia to be regenerated into nylon6 fibre to be used in new, sustainable carpet tile. This project became known as Net-Works™ and it has developed into an extremely successful program that has had a hugely positive impact on the local population and the marine environment.

Local fishers, rather than simply discarding their nets on the shoreline or into the ocean due to lack of alternatives, now gather and bundle the used netting to be sold back to Aquafil under their ECONYL® Reclaiming Program, who then regenerates the netting into nylon6 polymer, makes new nylon fibre from the recovered material, and then sells it to Interface to use in manufacturing their carpet tile. Interface and Aquafil have created a symbiotic relationship with the local fishers, putting money into the local economy and helping clean up the beaches and coastal waters at the same time. They’ve even helped set up a local community banking system, allowing the local population to save money for education and invest in a better future. Quite literally, everybody wins with this setup.

The program started small, but was extremely successful. Using this idea as inspiration, Steveston Harbour has set up a similar project here on the west coast of British Columbia. We hope to be able to build something that could spread along the BC coast, and potentially country or even continent wide. Sic parvis magna – greatness from small beginnings.

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In April, 2013, a representative from Interface Inc. contacted Joel Baziuk from Steveston Harbour Authority to start conversations with Aquafil about the possibility of setting up a net recycling program for disposing of the multitude of net and rope that is regularly accumulated and stored in Steveston Harbour. 18 months later, we completed the pilot project. We gathered enough nylon net to ship out a full sea container to Aquafil’s regeneration plant in Slovenia and get the project started in earnest. In November, 2014, we sent out the first container – some 40,000 lbs. of old nylon netting – to be regenerated and from this initial trial, we were able to see what the logistical and financial challenges were. From there, we were able to see how we could streamline the process to make it more efficient and sustainable for everyone, and hopefully to spread the program across the globe. In December, 2015, we sent out our second load of 40,000 lbs. of nylon nets and are busy working on our third.

Steveston Harbour Authority has also joined the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) which officially launched in September of 2015 to assist us with this program. Founded by World Animal Protection, the GGGI is a cross-sectoral alliance committed to driving solutions to the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear worldwide. The GGGI aims to improve the health of marine ecosystems, protect marine animals, and safeguard human health and economies.

Founded on the best available science and technology, the GGGI is the first initiative dedicated to tackling the problem of ghost fishing gear on a global scale. The GGGI’s strength lies in the diversity of its members including the private sector (e.g. fisheries and seafood retailers), academia, governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. Every member has a critical role to play to mitigate ghost gear locally, regionally and globally. As part of its collective impact, the GGGI aims to contribute to the framework of the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML).

This initiative aims to promote a greater understanding of the disastrous impact discarded fishing nets have on marine ecology around the world and to establish a global network of people and organizations that have smaller operations like ours so we can all contribute toward something even bigger. These programs are still in their infancy, but as more groups join in this initiative, we can make a real difference.

We have a good start on this, however, what we need is more nylon6 net to sustain the momentum of this project and turn it into something long lasting. We have a substantial amount of old nets here in Steveston Harbour, but once those are gone, we need to find new sources of nylon6, so we are actively looking for partners to join in this initiative. We know the nets are there, particularly at some of our larger harbours in British Columbia – it’s just a matter of finding a way to get them to Steveston Harbour where we can strip them of their accoutrement (lead line, cork line, bunt, etc.) and ship the nylon net out in sea containers to be recycled and turned into new products.

The netting they need for this project has to be nylon6, and it turns out that nearly all green gillnet and most seine body web are exactly what they need. At this point, polyethylene border web and bunt (on seine nets) and the polypropylene rope we accumulate can’t be recycled as a part of this program, but we are actively seeking ways to recycle that as well. We are in preliminary discussions with Plastix in Denmark, a company with an interest in repurposing or regenerating all kinds of fishing gear, including ropes, crab traps, prawn and black cod traps, lead line, cork line, polyethylene nets and more. We are pursuing a similar arrangement with Plastix which would make the entire process 100% sustainable and provide fishers with a place to responsibly dispose of all of their end of life gear.

Finally, through the Harbour Authority Association of British Columbia (HAABC), we are looking to expand this program coast wide and potentially nation wide as part of a Clean up the Coast Challenge project, which is in its very early states. Check back on our blog to find out more as things progress.

If you would like more information on this program, contact us at info@stevestonharbour.com.