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Clear the Coast collects five tonnes of debris

October 14, 2015

Our Clear the Coast expeditions to northern Vancouver Island and the Cape Scott Islands in August and September saw our volunteers collect an amazing five tonnes of marine debris. Last year, working on three beaches in Cape Scott Provincial Park, we picked up 2.67 tonnes of plastic from all over the world, with Japanese-labelled items comprising about one-third of the total. This year’s haul, which amounted to about 3.5 tonnes for the three beaches, washed in during just one year. Nearly all of it bore manufacturer’s marks or labels from Japan, meaning it was likely washed to sea by the 2011 Tohoku tsunami.

Map beaches cleaned by Clear the Coast 2015

Sea Otter Cove, August 17-24, 2015

It was delightful to return to Sea Otter Cove. The weather was full-on summer and most of our crew of 12 volunteers camped on shore. The kelp beds at the entrance to the cove look as healthy and abundant as ever. Sea otters played in the water, seemingly undisturbed by our presence; and while wolves and bears were evident, they kept out of sight.

Sea Otter Cove

We recovered a little under a tonne of debris from Sea Otter Cove. This was where we had concentrated our efforts last year and it was apparent that what we were picking up was recently deposited: it had not photo-degraded and didn’t show the kind of wear that long-beached plastics display.

On two days we hiked an easy 40-minute trail north over to Lowrie Bay. Lowrie is a beautiful, deep sandy beach that is wide open to the Pacific, with rocky outcrops on which the waves break dramatically—a surfer’s paradise. But large, dense plastic pallets and the ever-present net balls are really challenging to move over soft sand! We recovered fishnet entangled in hundreds of metres of line that was painstakingly untangled to create bags for lifting large and unwieldy chunks of plastic; the rest was packaged in helicopter lift bags and left high above the high tide line.

A volunteer gathers ghost fishing net from the beach at San Josef Bay.

To the south lie the outer beaches of San Josef Bay that can be reached in 15 minutes’ walk from Sea Otter Cove. Last year, a passing family of boaters cleared a stretch of this beach for us and we picked up the debris. This year, you’d be hard-pressed to know it had ever been cleaned. We gathered up multiple strings of fishing floats, tires and plastic jugs—well over a tonne of plastic.

Clear the Coast volunteers and fishing floats

The beach at San Jo was so heavily covered in logs that it was tricky to find an area to consolidate everything for the lift so we left it where the highest tides might still reach, but tied it to trees. It was a risky move; when we came back to get the debris at the end of the next expedition, it was half-buried in a load of seaweed and sand and getting it out was a dirty, smelly proposition!

Lanz and Cox Island Provincial Park, September 5-8, 2015

Our second expedition tackled the innermost of the Scott Islands group. Last year, our helicopter pilot had told us that the islands were choked with debris and she was right! This trip had to be done by helicopter because the waters around the islands are so dangerous and we needed large numbers of volunteers to do the work in a single day—or so we thought.

The Scott Islands are teeming with seabirds and marine life because of the upwelling currents found there, so the danger to wildlife from these plastics is real and immediate. Our work to Clear the Coast takes on a whole new urgency with the confirmation that plastics are actually entering the food web in a way that could do widespread harm. Once the toxins associated with marine plastics bioaccumulate in larger animals, the loads will be magnified and could cause serious damage to marine life.

Aerial view of the jagged rocks on the shore of Cox Island.

We hired West Coast Helicopters to take us out to Cox Island in teams of four people per beach. We’d hoped to be able to hop from beach to beach and do a couple each, but found so much debris that we could have spent more than the few hours we had just cleaning the three beaches we chose. Fourteen people working flat out for about three hours bagged a little over two tonnes of debris—and we only scratched the surface of the problem.

The helicopter removed the debris bags from one of our beaches as planned. But then Mother Nature began interfering with our plans. When the helicopter returned, there was no hook in sight and we knew something was wrong. The weather was closing in fast so our pilot, Paul Smith, decided to get the crews out as fast as possible. Unfortunately, two crews didn’t have enough time to secure their bags to shore to await a later pickup. There was a real worry that a high tide would float them out, posing a hazard to navigation and to wildlife that might become entangled in the ropes securing the bags to one another.

The next day the weather was bad again but we managed to lift everything out of San Jo and all but one bag from Sea Otter Cove. That left the Lowrie, Sea Otter and Cox Island loads stranded; we were out of budget and out of time with this crew of volunteers. Returning to Sointula, we made an urgent appeal for help. And that’s where the amazing things started happening ...

The Third Expedition

First, the Vancouver Aquarium called to say they had some tsunami debris funding left and they could help us. Then we received some generous donations from our supporters. The Canadian Wildlife Service called to offer helicopter time, as did the Cape Scott Wind farm. We were back in business!

On Saturday, Sept. 19th we flew back to Lowrie Bay and hooked up the bags with no difficulty. It was a rainy day and the ceiling was very low; we were only able to clear Lowrie and Sea Otter. As we skimmed the shoreline we were able to get a close look at the pocket beaches south of Cape Scott. Every one of them is full of debris!

Helicopter and two 30-yard bins

The next day the weather cleared and the helicopter headed out for Cox Island to pick up the remaining bags of debris. There was enough to fill two 30-yard bins,, making four bins full in total from our summer’s work. It’s sad and amazing that there is easily 20 times that much still out there on Cox, Lanz and Vancouver Islands.

Thanks to all of Living Oceans’ donors, old and new, for exceptional generosity in supporting our pleas for help to get stranded debris off of Vancouver Island beaches!

We’re immensely grateful to our volunteers:

Cassy & Jodie Bergeron, Penny Birnam, Garth Covernton, Cory Gardner, Will George, Eric & Terry Grantner, Meghan Hall, Angela & Paul Hansen, Nigel Marshall, Michael Neate, Wesley Piatocka, Wendy Robertson, Vern & Shirley Samson, Will Soltau, Jasper Shore, Julie & Marten Sims, Linda & Ross Weaver

Many thanks to our funders and Sponsors:

Vancouver Aquarium Tsunami Debris Management Program, Habitat Conservation Trust Fund’s PCAF, ADP Grants Programme, Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment Canada, Cape Scott Wind Farm, Super Valu in Port McNeill, Home Hardware in Port Hardy, Regional District of Mount Waddington 7-Mile Landfill

Our North Island Service Providers:

Paul Ross’s BC Coastal Expeditions and Imaging
West Coast Helicopters
Fox’s Disposal Services Ltd. 5990 Steel Rd, Port Hardy, BC V0N 2P0
Sointula Co-operative Store Association, Malcolm Island, BC

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