Photo courtesy of the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation

Sinking the ships we no longer want or need might seem like a crude solution to a national problem, but marine life, as it would turn out, might be putting these derelict craft to better use than we ever could.

Brooke Nodding, executive director of the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation on Nova Scotia’s south shore, said ships are sunk, or “scuttled,” as a matter of course on Canada’s west coast and indeed internationally. These aged vessels are sent to a watery grave for the sake of recreational diving, tourism and their indirect benefits to economic development. Ships are sunk in the Caribbean Sea to act as breakwaters for regional islands and off the coast of New England states, old subway cars are used in a similar fashion. But nowhere, to Brooke’s knowledge, are ships intentionally sunk to give underwater ecology a boost.

“If a vessel is stripped of all contaminants then scuttled properly, it sinks to the bottom and creates habitat for a wide variety of marine species,” said Brooke.

This unorthodox act of habitat creation has been the unintentional result of several offshore engineering projects such as the mounting of oil platforms. While their impacts on ocean ecology are overwhelmingly negative, through oil spills and contributions to climate change, the legs of many platforms have become host to marine life of every sort.

The Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation is an environmental charity concerning itself with everything from water quality to climate change on Nova Scotia’s south shore, and in March of 2015, the HMCS Cormorant was added to its list of ecological crises. This derelict, a sizable ship long since abandoned in the community of Bridgewater, began to list dangerously to one side and while it was being righted, Brooke and her colleagues monitored the surrounding waters for any potential leakages. The Cormorant is only one of countless abandoned vessels in Atlantic Canada big and small, they realized, and in search of a solution, they took a closer look at scuttling and the ecological benefits it might offer.

“This is a major issue across Canada and possibly internationally,” said Brooke. “A lot of these ships are being abandoned, decommissioned [and left] derelict all over.”

Although the slow conversion of scuttled ships into marine habitat, or “artificial reefs” as they’re known in the diving community, has indeed been observed, no ships have been closely monitored since their sinking to prove the concept scientifically.

“A lot of these international reefs are being created for recreational purposes,” said Brooke, “so there hasn’t been any monitoring of ecological impacts that’s resulted from them.”

Do sunken ships have a measurable impact on ocean health and if so, how much of one? With this question firmly in mind, The Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation hopes to fill this void in the scientific literature, and for that, they need to sink a ship of their very own.

According to Brooke, she and her colleagues are pulling together a proposal to sink a retired coast guard vessel called the Rupert Brand which they’ve been given access to. Their location of choice is a stretch of barren and sandy seabed off Gull Ledge, on Nova Scotia’s east coast near Mahone Bay. Bringing this craft to its final resting place will allow the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation to bring science to bear without disturbing local fisheries.

“Since there’s nothing [near Gull Ledge] to begin with, we could put the ship there and show if it creates a bit of a colony or habitat; it would be quite obvious,” said Brooke. “We’re hoping to have a proposal together very soon, probably by June.”

If this proposal can find funding and the project gets underway, the Foundation could present Atlantic Canada with a cheap solution to what is presently a very expensive problem. Brooke said so many ships are being abandoned instead of dismantled for scrap because the costs of transportation and labour are sometimes prohibitive. In many cases, any returns a boat owner might see from the scrapping process won’t even cover their costs.

Although this project has no definite timeframe, it’s Brook’s hope that their pioneering experiment will be underway sooner rather than later. If the final results prove promising, the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation could become the proverbial “loop lips,” ready and willing to sink their share of ships.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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