Joel Baziuk is the first to admit he would be “totally useless” with a rod and reel. The White Rock man has never fished a day in his life, after all.
But that hasn’t stopped the 35-year-old from building a career in the industry – and at Canada’s largest commercial fishing harbour.
For the past 12 years, Baziuk has been operations supervisor at Steveston Harbour Authority; an organization he began working at about 20 years ago to pay his way through university, where he was studying ancient Greek and Roman history.
After realizing he could be connected to local history and the water – “I need to be near the ocean, near the water – I always have been” – at the harbour, Baziuk began his career.
Responsible for the harbour’s day-to-day operations, Baziuk has made a point over the years of keeping an eye out for ways to improve the industry.
Since 2013, that has included piloting and expanding a fish-net recycling program to remove abandoned and deteriorated fishing nets from Steveston’s and other B.C.-area harbours.
Left in the water – something Baziuk said local fishermen only do as a last resort, and only when it’s a safety issue – the “ghost nets” threaten marine life, posing a danger of entanglement.
An example of what can happen was seen last month off B.C.’s Central Coast, where a humpback whale was found swimming wrapped in fishing line and net.
Closer to home, an entangled juvenile whale died after beaching on White Rock’s shores four years ago. A fishery expert said at the time that the young humpback was in the “worst body-condition” he’d ever seen, and had been suffering for “a long time.”
Baziuk said the “horrible” incidents are among factors driving his determination to see such gear recovered.
The environmental impact of disposing of gear that is past its useful lifetime is another driver.
With no facilities that recycle the gear in North America, options for fishermen are to either take it to the landfill where it is buried or incinerated – a costly and non-environmental move – pay to store it, or abandon it.
Determined to find a more viable, sustainable alternative, Baziuk learned of a recycling process being used by a group in the Philippines to turn the nylon net into carpet tile.
“I thought if somebody can do that, there’s got to be a way we can do something here,” he said.
After connecting with the organizations involved and clearing logistical hurdles, a local pilot program was launched.
The net is collected, stripped till just the nylon body web remains, bagged and shipped to a recycling plant in Slovenia. There, it is melted down and recycled into new nylon fibre, which is then used to manufacture such products as carpet tile, sunglass frames, swimwear and more.
So far, more than 35,000 kg of net has been shipped from Steveston – with the cost of shipping paid for by the Slovenian company – and Baziuk said another 15,000 kg is bagged and ready to go.
Seeing the value of the program firsthand, Baziuk said a recent award bestowed on him for implementing it – and recognizing other efforts – is an opportunity to increase the awareness of its benefits.
“Every opportunity that I can find to either expand it or engage with some other organization, I’m taking that opportunity,” he said. “People need to be aware of it.”
Baziuk described receiving the Prix d’Excellence for National Individual Commitment last week as “an honour.” Presented by Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Dominic LeBlanc, it recognizes teams and individuals who “have made exemplary contributions to the ongoing success of the Harbour Authority Program and to Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Small Craft Harbours Program.”
The award is the third such distinction associated to the Steveston Harbour Authority. It was presented to the SHA for Environmental Stewardship in 2009; in 2011, Baziuk’s father, Bob, who has worked with the SHA for about 40 years, was the recipient.
Baziuk said he hopes as word spreads, more fishermen will take advantage of the opportunity to contribute nets they can no longer use to the program. He’s also looking for partners to join in the initiative, and is in discussion with a Denmark company regarding a similar arrangement for repurposing all manner of fishing gear, not just nylon nets.
To arrange a drop-off or discuss other ways to get involved, Baziuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 604-272-5539.