As far as environmental issues go, marine pollution is a serious one. Yet, the subject’s relatively low media profile is disproportionate to its reality. Several million tonnes of garbage enters the world’s oceans each year. Much of that pollution is largely out-of-sight: either invisible at the micro-level or found remotely in the middle and at the bottom of oceans, and on far-flung stretches of coast.
Anyone who has spent time on remote sections of Canada’s Pacific coast in British Columbia has likely seen these eyesore accumulations of marine debris. Ocean currents gather and circulate the waste from as far away as Asia and the South Pacific, eventually depositing some of it along the western shores of North America.
I’ve seen a lot of shoreline debris during my travels in B.C. over the years. Much of the consumer waste I encountered were plastic items washed away during the tsunami following the Japanese earthquake of 2011. A local beachcomber I met on one of those trips showed me photos he’d taken of a towed array sonar device that had broken off from an American nuclear submarine and turned up on the rocky shore of a small island near Rivers Inlet.
Recently, a group of concerned citizens decided to do something about the issue.
At the start of the pandemic, several coastal B.C. tour operators, whose businesses had come to a grind because of covid-19, banded together and temporarily pivoted their operations to cleaning-up of stretches of the province’s coast. Some coastal indigenous nations partnered with the companies on that effort. Those cleanup campaigns took place during the autumn of 2020 and the spring of 2021. Hundreds of tonnes of debris was removed.
Greg Shea, a ship captain with Maple Leaf Adventures based in Victoria, was heavily involved in those projects. I spoke to him recently to find out more about that effort and what crews discovered on the remote shores.
How was this project born?
After the pandemic began, when maritime tourism operators realized that their livelihoods were at stake, ideas for how to pivot operations were floated. My colleague at Maple Leaf Adventures, Kevin Smith, came up with the idea of soliciting government funding to use the vessels to go out to remote parts of the British Columbia coast to pick-up marine debris, which had accumulated there over the decades.
When Kevin first brought-up the idea with other tour operators, they were skeptical. But after he pursued it, an opportunity for funding came up with the B.C. government, which came through at the last minute. Once the money rolled in, five tourism operators, who are to some degree in competition with each other, all began to work together on this project.
Explain to people who don’t know the area, where did these trips take place. How do you plan something like this? How did you choose where to go?
The planning was one of the interesting aspects of the project. The first thing was to include shorelines that are exposed to the open ocean, and to some degree also to the prevailing winds. For much of our coast that tends to be the south-to-southwest-to-southeast exposures of islands.
The first expedition in Fall 2020 was focussed on the area we operate in the most, which is the central coast and upper reaches of the Great Bear Rainforest. We started at Calvert Island in the south and worked our way north. We were able to clear quite a bit of the coastline up to Seaforth Channel and Banks Island near the Heiltsuk First Nation community of Bella Bella. We focussed on the outer islands as we were better equipped for the open water, while the First Nations communities, who also got funding, focussed on the inside waters.
For the second trip in Spring 2021, instead of just choosing locations and beaches on the map, we relied on satellite images where we could identify piles of driftwood. When you find lots of logs and driftwood, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll also find debris in behind it, and also in between the logs themselves. That trip ended at Campania Island and the Estevan group of islands.
What sorts of objects did you discover most often? And what random items did you find?
By far the most common thing we found was fishing gear of various types—from floats to ropes to nets. Even sports fishing gear. But it was mostly commercial fishing gear.
Other things that were very common were items of household plastic from dish soap containers to flip-flops. We joked a lot about the big push on banning plastic straws, because in the many weeks we were out there I only found three straws.
In terms of some of the more unusual stuff, we came across marine mammal bones: a few dolphin, whale and sea lion skeletons. We also found different scientific equipment like dislodged data buoys and an electronic device that looked like a rocket. We also stumbled upon some mannequins and parts of boats from Japan that were likely tsunami debris.
What was really surprising were the number of messages, or notes, in floating bottles found washed up.
Were you able to extract the notes and look at them?
Yes. My son, who was along on the trip, found a message in a bottle that had come from Korea. Another was launched from San Francisco in 1987, which was kind of fun. That note, I think, had the telephone number and address of the sender included, so that the person who found it would let them know.
On the second trip we did a lot of sorting of items in order to send them to either landfill or recycling sites. It was during this sorting process that we found the stranger objects which was quite comical.
Were you able to figure-out how much of the debris came from which parts of the world? Local debris versus international debris? Objects from Alaska or Hawaii, say, versus debris from East Asia?
It was hard to determine where everything came from. But we had clues for some of the debris. The mineral water bottles, we could trace to nearly every country in the Pacific Rim: from Russia to New Zealand, Japan, Korea and China. We even found a bottle from Indonesia.
We also collected over 550 crab trap floats with ID tags attached to them that had broken loose from their lines and were traceable to California, Washington and Oregon. The sad thing is we ended up with their floats but all those crab traps are still on the ocean floor and were ghost fishing for a period of time.
I was going to specifically ask you about Japanese tsunami debris. When I was on the north coast of B.C. a few years ago, I found a lot of objects on a beach that had come from Japan—based on the writing on them.
Because of the ocean currents, a lot of the debris that ends up in the water off Japan arrives here in British Columbia. The old glass floats of the Japanese fishing fleet, commonly used in the past, tended to wash up here. One of the prize finds among the debris, during the expedition, were those glass balls, as they are now exceedingly rare. During our work, we kept our eyes peeled for them. As a group, we found over 100 during the 2 expeditions.
So, how did you remove all of the debris?
We placed the material we found in 6x6x6 foot supersacks that could carry up to a ton of debris. Some bags contained garbage, others recycling. We recorded the exact locations of those sites for helicopters to pick-up those bags and place them onto a barge pulled by a tugboat.
The work must have been very laborious.
Yeah, I would place it on the extreme side of labour. I’ve done a lot of physical work like tree planting and other things that would be considered hard jobs. This garbage collection work was way up there. The terrain is horrendous. These are not nice beaches, but rough and sometimes rocky coastlines badly beaten by the weather and covered in lots of kelps, seaweeds, and barnacles. It was a tough job and a high-risk activity.
By the end of our days we were extremely tired. Even the chefs that were cooking for us started seeing our caloric intake skyrocket as the days progressed. We came back to the boat starving after eating everything they packed for us. At one point the cooks were concerned there wouldn’t be enough food to last the trip.
After one of these trips you’d also be physically worn. Your hands would be a little torn up from constantly pulling on big fishing nets and ropes for hours on end—ropes that have become part of the beach with the sand and the sticks and the rocks and vegetation layered on top. You could spend hours pulling as hard as you can to free just a little bit of net while sawing off what’s holding it, and then repeating that process.
There are a handful of people on the coast, beachcombers, who like to scour abandoned places for these types of objects. Were there any grumblings from them, or resentment, as far as you know, about what you were doing—removing possible finds?
Not that I know of. I think a lot of those people benefit most from log salvage—assuming they could even reach some of these remote islands we were working on. To be able to make any kind of living from collecting marine debris would be a dream. We were actually talking about that amongst ourselves during the job: if marine debris could become valuable then people would voluntarily pick it up off the beaches.
Having said that there is a lot of value in some of the things we would find. Last year, for instance, one person from the group found an inch-and-a-half-thick rope that was 20,000 feet long. That item would be worth a small fortune because buying something like that brand new would be very expensive.
What did you learn from this trip, whether it was about ocean pollution, or the currents, or another other aspect of the issue you were tackling?
I think the biggest thing that I learned is the scale of the ocean pollution problem. After seeing the amount of garbage on the barge from just a small area of our coastline, it was pretty heartbreaking in terms of how much more was out there. That was one impact.
Having myself spent a lot of time in the area, I can say that in the past we would see a lot of garbage on the beaches but we wouldn’t really want to acknowledge it. We couldn’t really do much about it at the time beyond picking up the odd item or two while on a trip. Devoting an entire journey to it with dozens of people was like nothing I’d done before.
The other takeaway was discovering what the debris actually was—and where it ended up. We learned how the debris moved according to what type of material it was. On parts of the coast with high impact shores with a lot of breakwater because of storms you’d get the dragger balls, fishing floats, and water bottles. Some of the more southern locations that had bays would catch the fishing nets. And then other areas wouldn’t have any of them at all.
You mean seeing the way in which the weather and currents worked to consistently place certain objects in particular places?
Completely. You could look at any given stretch of coastline after doing this work for a while and know what objects you’d likely find there. Water bottle beaches were easily predictable. In some cases, we would find 300 or 400 water bottles on a single, small beach. We collected about 80,000 of them throughout the trip.
The crazy thing was the vast majority of all those bottles had caps on them. You can imagine how many more bottles without caps make up the vast majority and have sunk and are now sitting at the bottom of the ocean.
Did you get any clues from this exercise about how to stop or reduce the types of pollution going into the ocean?
A lot of the solution boils down to respect for the oceans at a worldwide level. Much of the debris is garbage which shouldn’t be getting there in the first place. If there was a way to make commercial fisherman from all countries be more responsible in terms of looking after their equipment, that would help. The same with boaters.
We sometimes found water bottles filled with used engine oil, or another chemical, that was pitched into the water. That wasn’t an everyday find, but it also wasn’t uncommon. A lot of this stuff is intentionally put into the ocean. Some of it is coming down the large global river systems that are now used for expelling debris.
Will this cleanup project continue in the future?
It’s a pretty passionate group of people that have been involved with this, so I do see the project carrying forward. How exactly, remains undetermined. There still is a lot of coastline that hasn’t been cleaned up yet. In the meantime, a lot has been learned. And now there are other groups, some of them non-profit, that have begun to participate in this activity. So, the ball is definitely rolling now.
Greg Shea is a ship captain, master mariner and wilderness guide with Maple Leaf Adventures. He lives on Quadra Island in British Columbia.