We Need To Talk About Marine Debris

We can all play a role when it comes to cleaning up our shores

As avid outdoors people, it always bothered us to see our beautiful coastal areas slowly becoming littered by a relentless plague. Marine garbage.

Marine Debris. Photo by iStock.
Photo by iStock.

The types and sizes of items floating or grounded in the Northern Discovery Islands is mind blowing. Here on Quadra Island, we are fortunate to have many eco-friendly people we are proud to call neighbours, who care about our shoreline and environment. They are called the Quadra Island Beach Clean Dream Team on Facebook.

Prior to COVID, a longtime one-day annual community event led by an outdoors group collapsed. However, the marine debris did not stop coming. Quadra Island experiences strong southeast winter storms, combined with high tides that strip beaches clean as they push debris and driftwood northwest up Georgia Strait. Quadra Island is situated just north of the junction of flood tides which flow north until approximately Mittlnatch Island, and from the north flood tides push south to Mittlnatch around Vancouver Island. The eastern side of Quadra has one long stretch of rugged shoreline continuing to Rebecca Spit Provincial Marine Park, Hyacinth, Open and Bold Bay. These are all very rugged areas and are perfect collection points that unfortunately catch a lot of debris. Large blocks of foam (dock floatation) and driftwood, which is abundant, are frequently ground up on shore by these storms. The microplastics are nearly impossible to pick up and in some locations are driven right into the foreshore and forest above.

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So, one gloomy spring morning in early 2020, with COVID dominating the news, I proposed to my wife, not a proposal she was expecting, but she agreed to spend one day per week in March, April and May to find some part of our day to walk Quadra beaches and pick up other people’s garbage. It is not a very glamorous task for anyone. One year later, I proposed again to her with the creation of a Facebook group to encourage others to do the same. Behold, Quadra Island Beach Clean Dream Team. We now have 144 members, some more active than others, some I know, some I don’t, and a few who do not live on Quadra. We communicate regarding sites and schedules for possible beach hikes, locations of piles of garbage and ask for assistance when needed. We also post pictures to generate group interest and awareness. I received a donation from the Campbell River Community Foundation and had some stickers made on eco-friendly material for participating in beach cleaning. Our local elementary school takes classes to our shores each year to do their part and last year students received an ice cream cone and a sticker for their effort, courtesy of the Dream Team donation.

The problem during COVID was that groups and gatherings were not allowed provincially, so my hope was that people would do what they can, where they can, when they can, and it’s working.

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On our beaches, the challenges are many: slippery logs, rocks and trip hazards, the risk of twisted or broken ankles, bad weather, including heat, wind and cold, are ever present. Those that participated gained balance, co-ordination and fitness, all while enjoying the great outdoors. Pickers bring a bag that usually gets filled rapidly with smaller debris, and they create stash points well above high tide for larger items and a take photo with GPS tagged location turned on for later collection. Some of our remote coastal areas are trail access only and make for difficult removal of large items and is best done by boat.

Stash points are piles of larger pieces of marine debris, grouped together above high tide, to be scheduled for proper pick up and disposal.
Stash points are piles of larger pieces of marine debris, grouped together above high tide, to be scheduled for proper pick up and disposal.

In the spring of 2021, I received a tip that Breanne, at Spirit of the West Kayak Adventures, was preparing to apply for one of the COVID relief coastal clean-up projects that the provincial government had on offer. After a huge clean-up project was undertaken in the central coast area by the Small Ship Tour Operators Association, she was keen to get her team on board for some hard work. Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful in her initial application. Nonetheless, she was excited to help and offered her commercial property yard for marine debris storage and sorting. The Dream Team now had a location to take our stash point material.

When you’re out walking and enjoying the ocean view, bring a bag along and collect garbage as you go. Every little bit helps.
When you’re out walking and enjoying the ocean view, bring a bag along and collect garbage as you go. Every little bit helps.

Enter the Ocean Legacy Foundation, based out of Delta. The Foundation was successful in their bid to start their clean-up from Powell River northwards, including many of the Discovery Islands. They removed many tons of debris, but June’s heat dome made collection extremely challenging. Scheduling overruns did not allow much time or money left for a thorough Quadra Island cleaning. They did plan and were successful in the removal of the big 30 loader tire fender break water device that was washed up just west of Francisco Point. They have an excellent and informative web page at oceanlegacy.ca. I wish them all the luck in their endeavours.

Spirit of the West was successful in their application for a fall clean-up initiative. Their crew consisted of 12 local youth and seven others who identified as young at heart, and they also involved the local Indigenous community. Their efforts in fall, winter conditions were less than ideal, but with good planning, they did what they could, when they could. They successfully cleaned 357 kilometres of shoreline in the Discovery Islands and removed 50 tons of debris (110,000 pounds.) Fifty per cent of that debris was recycled, much of it at the Ocean Legacy Foundation facility.

The Quadra Island Beach Clean Dream Team assisted when we could on shore and at the depot. After much communication back and forth with the Comox Valley regional district waste management department, we are hopeful for a marine debris only bin to be located at our newly proposed recycle facility. (Cross your fingers!)

Where does it all come from?

I feel that very little of the beach garbage is generated or left by island residents. Cities, towns and industry south of Quadra Island are major contributors to the problem. Perhaps some is accidental, but most could be preventable. Storm sewer systems are frequently overwhelmed in major rain events, allowing overflow and spillage into ocean and streams. A strainer system should be in all sewer and ditch systems. The recent flooding of the Fraser Valley surely has contributed to a fair share of debris. Industry, commercial business and government owe it to everyone to be more responsible. Marinas need to upgrade their dock flotation systems. Hunters should lobby the ammunition manufacturers to make things like shotgun wads and cartridges out of eco-friendly materials. Sport and commercial fishermen need to be more proactive in reducing gear loss and should properly dispose of used gear. Shellfish farmers need to contain their trays and gear and prevent loss in the first place.

Hard though it is to motivate people to pick up other people’s garbage, we all must do what we can, when we can, where we can!

We can all do better. Plastics seem to be here to stay and do have good uses, but better recycling and waste control are key. Education and informing everyone are a great start. We need to put pressure on our government to force industry to conform to modern environmentally acceptable standards. We need to change the way we think about our planet. We need to try and make a difference. We need to demand that products are not over packaged and products are eco-friendly if disposable. We need to report violators.

In BC, the RAPP line contact number is 1-877-952-7277 or #7277 to report polluters, spills and poaching.

Illegal dumping in the Strathcona area can be reported to Comox Strathcona waste management online at CSWM.ca or by calling 1-800-331-6007. A tipping fee waiver form is also available through their website for free waste tipping from illegal dumping or marine debris.

Foam is some of the worst marine debris because it breaks down so easily into micro pieces.
Foam is some of the worst marine debris because it breaks down so easily into micro pieces.

The debris we have been finding has provided some evidence of its origin. For example, we have found pesticide spraying signage from North Vancouver, traffic cones and barriers from Vancouver and Bellingham, oyster trays and baskets from the shellfish growers, all sizes of rope, refrigerators and freezers, entrance doors, car parts like plastic bumpers or interior parts, syringes and the small blue purified water vials from IV drug users, naloxone kits, plastic tampon applicators and disposable lighters, to name a few. Foam is the worst offender because it breaks down so easily into micro pieces. We also find drums, plastic barrels, netting, propane tanks, boat parts, car batteries, full oil containers and empty tires filled with foam. I don’t have space to name all the items. Let’s just say it is shocking. There is another issue with creosoted lumber, pilings and dock materials, which to date are too large and cumbersome for most clean-up efforts. The oily sheen that leaches from this material cannot be good for anything.

The author, beside a washed-up freezer.
The author, beside a washed-up freezer.

It’s a battle that must be fought for the sake of our planet and for future generations. After all, we still only have one planet, but I better check with Elon Musk.

So, some may say, “How can I help? I am not able to scramble on rocks and logs, or I don’t have time.” If you can pick up one piece of garbage per day, you are helping.

If you can sit on a log on a Quadra beach and you can bend over and pick up microplastics and larger pieces, you are helping.

If you can contain and remove your personal garbage for later proper disposal, you are helping.

I also encourage all waterfront property owners to help by creating their own stash piles for later collection.

My long-term hope is that the BC provincial government recognizes the problem and continues to support and fund coastal clean-up projects forever. I hope that the Clean Coast Initiative isn’t just a one-time-only COVID relief project. The problem is a lot bigger than Quadra residents can deal with or should have to deal with.

Cheers to a cleaner planet, from the Quadra Island Beach Clean Dream Team.