That Sinking Feeling: Do "Artificial Reefs" in BC Waters Increase Biodiversity or Waste?

Article excerpt

A British Columbia group that sinks decommissioned warships to increase undersea biodiversity and encourage diving tourism is being criticized by environmentalists who believe the practice wastes salvageable materials and introduces environmentally hazardous chemicals into the ocean.

The Artificial Reef Society of BC (ARSBC) says sinking old Canadian warships creates "artificial reefs" that attract a wide variety of marine life and millions of dollars a year in diving tourism. In 1994, three years after the G.B. Church was sunk in the Georgia Strait, a biological assessment by Subsea Enterprises found close to 100 species of marine organisms including invertebrates, fish and seaweeds on, and in association with, the sunken vessel.

ARSBC director of government relations Tex Enemark argues that the sinkings also boost tourism in nearby communities, drawing money into them and creating jobs. A 1994 market assessment report found that the sport diving industry in British Columbia was worth some four million dollars in 1993 and wreck diving was probably responsible for ten per cent of the total revenue generated by sport diving tourism. In a recent update of the study, the "artificial reef" programme was reported to generate $1.75 million annually.

However, the Georgia Strait Alliance, the Fraser River Coalition, the T. Buck Suzuki Foundation, and Coastwatch oppose the sinkings. Claire Heffernan of the Georgia Strait Alliance and spokesperson for the groups says that ships contain oil and other contaminants in crank cases, fuel tanks, and day tanks that cannot be removed economically unless the ship is cut up for scrap.

The groups, she says, are also concerned because Canadian warships contain asbestos and are often painted with anti-fouling paint containing tributal tin (TBT), a substance banned in 1988 because of its harmful effects on marine environments. Naval ships were exempted from the ban.

Enemark responds that before any sinking, the vessel is rigorously inspected by Environment Canada to ensure it meets environmental standards. He recognizes that asbestos is contained within ships that have been sunk by ARSBC, but says it is a hazard only when it is breathed into lungs, which is not possible underwater.

Also, he says that before any of the warships were sunk, all oil lines were taken out and tanks drained or extracted. He says that the tanks left onboard are "not finger clean, but are well drained. …