I raise my hand over my head and signal in a circular motion to the helicopter pilot that the hook is secure on the 350-kilogram lift bag and ready to be flown to the garbage barge. It is a surreal experience; not only is our hard labour coming to an end but also, I am a 14-year-old high school student directing a helicopter. I could have been sitting at my desk right now starting Grade 10 but instead I am out here on the remote outer islands of the Central Coast in the Great Bear Rainforest removing marine debris. How did I get so fortunate?
The answer is a combination of COVID-19 stimulus funding, a high school one-course-at-a-time schedule (in case we have to go back online due to COVID-19) and most of all some passionate coastal people. When COVID-19 hit, wilderness tourism on the coast was closed for the season before it had even started. Hundreds of guides and outfitters were out of work including my Dad who is captain on an adventure tourism sailing ship called Maple Leaf; a 1904 wooden schooner that typically takes eight guests at a time into the Great Bear Rainforest. Maple Leaf Adventures is part of The Small Ship Tour Operators Association of British Columbia (SSTOA) whose members came up with the idea of a BC Coastal Cleanup project to employ the staff of the five companies and get their ships back out on the water. Each vessel would be fully provisioned and self-sufficient, so no contact in the remote communities would take place. Every crew member would be tested for COVID-19 beforehand and live in their “ship bubble” for the quarantine period. I gladly suffered the long-swab nose test for a chance to return to the Great Bear Rainforest and do some good.
The Great Bear Rainforest’s outer coast is strewn with reefs, and far from roads and communities, making this area difficult and expensive to clean up. With the support of the Wilderness Tourism and Commercial Bear Viewing associations, blessings from First Nation leaders in the region and funding by the Provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, the idea became a reality. Named the Marine Debris Removal Initiative (MDRI), a total of nine ships consisting of four sailing vessels and five motorboats, with 100-plus crew and guides would collect garbage on the beaches of the outer islands of the Central Coast over a six-week period. Meanwhile, First Nations people from the Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Gitga’at territories would tackle the inland coastal sections near their communities of Bella Bella, Klemtu and Hartley Bay. Supported by Heiltsuk Horizon’s tug and barge and Airspan’s helicopter, the garbage would be lifted one bag at a time to the barge, which would then be towed to Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, to be delivered to a nearby landfill.
My Background I was named Mowat after the great nature writer Farley Mowat. I’ve watched and observed the ocean since I was a six-month-old sailing around Vancouver Island in my parent’s 29-foot sailboat. From a young age, I was taught to leave places better than I found them. On every beach we explored we would collect garbage—mostly plastic. Up to 12 million tons of which is dropped into the sea each year (something like a garbage truck every minute) and scientists project that by 2050 there will be more plastic debris in the ocean than fish. It’s estimated that it takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to break down, but no one really knows. What we do know is that plastics are one of the biggest environmental threats we face. There are five major gyres of plastic in the world’s oceans; the largest, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is two times larger than Texas. If we can get this plastic while it is big, yet to be broken down into smaller pieces by the environment and washed onto beaches and back into the ocean by winter storms, we can prevent the troubling smaller microplastics from accumulating in the oceans and in the food chain. I’ve always had a passion for the environment, and in particular fish and how to protect them. So when I heard about this initiative, I jumped at the chance to be part of MDRI’s second leg of the expedition, collecting garbage on the outer beaches of Price, Aristazabal and Princess Royal islands.
Day in the Life As the sun rises, I wake to the sound of the engine revving up, the rattle of chain and the cry of the first mate saying, “Wakey wakey, flakey flakey.” I jump out of my bunk and lift my mattress to open the anchor locker below. I put on my ear protection and gloves and then stow, or “flake,” what sometimes seems like an endless length of chain. It’s moving day; another island, another day of garbage collection for our crew of six aboard the beautiful, traditionally rigged 92-foot sailing vessel Maple Leaf. I set to task making the morning drinks of coffee and tea and set the table in the galley for the crew. After breakfast, I fill my water bottle, get my raingear and put on my lifejacket before getting into the zodiac, ready for a day of action. We motor amongst the islands around Aristazabal in Laredo Sound, looking for pockets of concentrated debris. The site must be an appropriate location for the helicopter’s hook line to remove the lift bags. In the zodiac, Dad looks for the best landing spot amongst the jagged rocks and constant swell. He revs the engine and pins the boat against a ledge and I quickly step off in the rising surf. Timing is everything. Once on the beach, I clamber over the slippery rocks onto the ever-shifting log piles and look for a central location above the tide line where we can put the lift bag. Then, each of us heads out separately with a burlap sack to collect garbage amongst the log piles. This is no easy sandy beach walk. Returning to the large white lift bag, each sack is weighed by a 50-kilogram fish scale and recorded before being emptied into the lift bag, to maximize but not overload the helicopter’s lift capability. The site, its latitude and longitude and the type of garbage is also recorded for scientific purposes. Many days, I would spend hours on end detangling a 50 to 100-foot-long ship line, as thick as my arm, from the log jams; sometimes resorting to cutting it to pieces.
I was disappointed to see how much ocean debris is on our beautiful coast. The amount of plastic water bottles, broken up Styrofoam, rope and fishing gear is astounding. We quickly realized that over 80 percent of the garbage collected is made up of derelict fishing gear from around the world. Sometimes I would find up to 50 dragger balls, fishing floats used in offshore fisheries, in perfect condition on one pocket beach. The crew would play a game of who could get their fishing ball closest to the lift bag, pinging it off rocks and logs. The dragger balls were indestructible and therefore non-recyclable; a hard plastic called a Thermoset that can’t be heated and reused. Lost fishing gear could instantly fill our big white lift bags so we would tie them on the handles and let the helicopter pilot know we had “hitchhikers” attached to the outside of the lift bags. Some good news is the dragger fishing balls are being repurposed for the Heiltsuk herring spawn-on-kelp fishery, where the balls will float suspended lines of kelp that the herring’s lay their eggs on. Unlike salmon, herring do not die after spawning and they spawn every year, making this type of fisheries sustainable and an excellent local food source.
One day, the first mate and I were out on an expedition scouting for potential new debris pockets. We landed on a beach and walked into the forest well above the spray zone. What a surprise to see the forest floor blanketed in white Styrofoam. From dock size chunks to pieces so small you’d need a vacuum to clean it up. We realized it would have taken our team the whole three weeks to deal with this one spot. Digging into the bank you could see layers of Styrofoam, like a midden, intermixed with the soil. Huge tree roots grew around the white blocks and you’d step on giant moss-covered Styrofoam “rocks” and bust through. I felt overwhelmed and distressed to see such a beautiful remote place this high into the rainforest littered with human trash from far away. Styrofoam, from dock flotation to insulated coffee cups should not exist or be made anymore. I found a huge 40-foot shipping container insulated with Styrofoam broken up across multiple islands, water bottles from Japan, New Zealand, India and Russia, an EPIRB yellow box, a deep-water data collector to be returned to an American scientist studying offshore salmon, basketballs, golf balls and of course the holy grail of garbage: glass balls by the dozens. A funny moment was when a crew member desperate to find some “good trash” like a glass ball or message-in-a-bottle after having a bad day, finally found a bottle with a note. Saving it to be opened in front of everyone he pulled out the paper only to have it say “F**k you from the past! Find something better to do you f**king idiot!—2007.” Not really “good trash” but trash talk, and we all had a laugh.
Being out at sea for three weeks, we ran through our fresh veggies quickly and therefore had a lot of long-lasting cabbage. Cabbage coleslaw side dishes to cabbage soup and even cabbage veggie burgers, I found it a little too much. It was a fortunate day indeed when we went out after work and within minutes hooked a 50-pound halibut to share amongst the four MDRI sailboats in our anchorage. On days when we had to travel, I’d hear the purr of the diesel engine and nap in my dark “crew cave” in the forecastle. After an exhausting but rewarding day of work, I’d just manage to eat dinner and do the dishes before drawing the curtains to my bunk where I’d be asleep in minutes.
By the end of my time on the project, we had just scraped the surface. The lift bags filled too quickly, and the two barge loads bulged to capacity, forcing us to stop when there was so much more garbage to collect. In total, over the six-week expedition, 415 lift bags, accumulating 127 tons of marine debris was removed from 600 kilometres of shoreline in the Great Bear Rainforest. It was a success, but only just the beginning. As depressing and overwhelming as the sheer amount of garbage was, I had a lot of fun. I met new people who all had a passion for the West Coast and I talked to scientists and guides who had stories from around the world. I learned how to drive a zodiac in more challenging conditions. I spotted wildlife from wolves to whales to blue sharks. I worked with so many positive and educated people, and learned far more than I would have behind a desk in high school. It was inspirational. I am grateful that the Government of BC gave the 3.5 million funding for this important work, and was thankful to be part of it.
The Marine Debris Removal Initiative in BC is a positive example of action in a not so positive time and I am proud to have played a small part in the solution.
Story by Mowat Shea
Photos by Greg Shea
Edited by Jolie Shea
For more information on the MDRI project check out Instagram:
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