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For weeks at a time, crews have been scouring remote sections of the West Coast — digging out massive fishing nets, hauling lines, tossing thousand of buoys and shifting mountains of Styrofoam to try to make a dent in the ocean refuse finding its way onto B.C.’s wildest shores.

A shocking 210 tonnes of flotsam and plastic detritus was removed over six weeks from a mere 300 kilometres of the province’s intricate 25,000-kilometre shoreline during this year’s massive cleanup of the ecologically sensitive foreshores of the Great Bear Rainforest.

“It’s just perpetual. It just keeps washing ashore,” said Scott Benton, executive director of the Wilderness Tourism Association.

“It's a huge volume of garbage. And a very small portion of the coast when you consider how many kilometres of coastline there is in B.C.”

The industrial-scale effort involved a fleet of nine small-ship ecotourism vessels crewed by 150 people who would have otherwise been out of work this May and June due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Benton said.

The undertaking also required an immense barge, a helicopter, a contingent of small boats and partnerships with the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Gitga’at, Haisla, and Gitxaala nations.

Wilderness tourism staff collected fishing nets, thousands of buoys and mountains of Styrofoam to try to make a dent in the ocean refuse finding its way onto B.C.’s wildest shores. Photo Jeff Reynolds

But the results speak for themselves as the enterprise, benefiting from previous experience, managed to almost double the 127 tonnes of trash picked up last spring during the inaugural launch of the provincial initiative, Benton said.

“It can feel like you’re putting a Band-Aid on an artery,” says Quadra Islander Breanne Quesnel on collecting marine debris. “But we live in this this beautiful place, and you just want to do what what you can to help, rather than hurt it.”

In April, the province backed the initiative again, divvying up $9.5 million from the Clean Coast, Clean Waters Fund to four groups or associations in an effort to remove garbage from 1,200 kilometres of shore, or more than 100 derelict vessels along the north coast down to southern Vancouver Island.

In addition to providing pandemic relief to the embattled wilderness tourism sector, the project was a response to the call for action around marine debris from coastal communities, said Environment Minister George Heyman.

Local governments and resident complaints involved derelict vessels, mooring buoys, polystyrene foam, aquaculture and fishing debris, and single-use plastics, he added.

“The scale of the problem is massive, and we need to do much more to address ocean debris and its devastating impacts on marine life and food sources,” Heyman said.

The vast majority of the ocean trash being removed from B.C.’s pristine shores is plastic, said Jeff Reynolds, a biologist and guide with Maple Leaf Adventures, who has been involved in the cleanup both years.

Each year, globally, about eight million tonnes of plastic waste enters oceans. This translates to the dumping of a garbage truck of plastic into the sea every single minute.

“It’s not just local, the debris is from all over the world,” Reynolds said.

The gruelling work to collect it involved scrambling over rough terrain and tangled masses of driftwood to shift, pile, and sort garbage before loading it onto boats headed for the barge, or for pick up by helicopter directly from the beach.

By weight, 50 per cent of what he and his crew mates wrestled from the shores exposed to the Pacific was nylon fishing nets or lines, Reynolds said. In terms of volume, crumbling foam from docks or floats, along with plastic buoys or floats, were the most common offenders.

And then there were the ubiquitous plastic bottles. The team likely picked up around 90,000 of them, he said.

Reynolds was heartened that this year rather than just dumping the debris in landfills, roughly 60 per cent of it was sorted for recycling. And despite the labour involved, the effort was worth more than just getting a paycheque during the pandemic, he said.

“We all really care for this coast,” he said. “And there’s been a real incredible response, and I’ve enjoyed being part of such an impactful program.”

Quadra Island Beach Clean Dream Team

Quadra Island resident Breanne Quesnel and her sons Eamon and Rowan sort marine debris gathered by community volunteers. Photo by Rochelle Baker

The past two years, the Clean Coast initiative has been the largest organized effort to clean the province’s shores in B.C. history.

Yet for decades, most of the heavy lifting to clean B.C.’s beaches is typically done by community volunteers or non-profit groups (ENGOs) that often face funding, infrastructure or workforce hurdles.

And the pandemic hasn’t made coastal community efforts to protect shorelines any easier, but some groups persevered regardless.

When Quadra Island resident Breanne Quesnel saw her community’s annual spring beach cleanup cancelled due to COVID-19 for a second year, she felt she could help.

Loads of dedicated individuals were still gathering garbage, but without the annual organized effort, there wasn’t anywhere to put it or any way to get a large amount of debris off the island, said Quesnel, co-owner of Spirit of the West Kayaking.

So, Quesnel reached out to the regional waste management authority and collaborated to put a 40-yard collection bin in the parking lot of her business.

With the costs covered by the regional waste authority, she helped set up a depot where islanders could sort and pile recyclables, and dump the rest of the debris for transport off island.

“You know, we’re just a private entity, and we could provide the facility and some labour to help,” she said.

“There are so many incredible volunteers on Quadra who have been busy collecting debris and stashing it, but needed a place to put it.”

Quadra Island resident Nevil Hand organized the Facebook Quadra Island Beach Clean Dream Team so volunteers could co-operate to clean beaches during COVID-19. Photo courtesy Nevil Hand

Nevil Hand, a retired firefighter, is one of the volunteers consistently walking the island’s shores.

Frustrated that the pandemic had quashed yet another community cleanup, he organized a Facebook group, the Quadra Island Beach Clean Dream Team, as one way to organize and collaborate with other individual volunteers.

“My motto is: Pick up what you can, where you can, when you can,” Hand said.

People typically put the bigger beach trash in piles for pickup or use the social media group to communicate with one another about where they have cleaned.

While the dumpster on the island has made things easier, it’s still a challenge to get any level of government to deal with larger items residents can’t manage due to lack of proper equipment or transport.

Case in point is an enormous industrial marine bumper that washed ashore on one of the island’s remote beaches in the early spring and has yet to be removed by authorities or its owner.

The structure is at least 60 feet long and made from loader tires and huge steel girders, he said.

“It's still there,” Hand said.

“There’s no accountability. Government doesn’t want to find them and industries leave all their crap up and down the coast and let somebody else deal with it.”

Quadra Islanders want more accountability from industry when it comes to cleaning up marine debris. Photo courtesy of Nevil Hand

As a mom and business owner that benefits from the coast’s spectacular wilderness, Quesnel said making an effort is necessary despite the enormity of the ocean’s plastic problem.

“It can feel like you’re putting a Band-Aid on an artery,” Quesnel said.

“When you’re watching your kids play on the beach, you wonder what the ocean will be like when they’re older.

“But we live in this beautiful place, and you just want to do what you can to help, rather than hurt it.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer