The southern Discovery Islands beach clean-up is now finished.
“The last truck load of debris left our yard this morning. So we’re now just into the final stages of cleaning up our own yard as a result of all the little styrofoam balls and things,” said Breanne Quesnel.
Her company, Spirit of the West Adventures, was awarded a contract to clean up between 200 and 400 kilometres of shoreline in the southern Discovery Islands through the provincial government’s Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative. This is a provincially funded program designed to support B.C.’s coastal communities as they recover from the COVID-19 economic downturn and loss of tourism. There has been a long standing need to collect the plastics, styrofoam and other debris that has been accumulating on beaches.
Quesnel emailed a tally which showed that more than half of the 347 kilometres of shoreline Spirit of the West Adventures cleaned was on Quadra Island. They also cleaned almost the entire circumference of Read and Marina Islands, as well as significant portions of Cortes and Maurelle Islands and 4 km of Grant and Mittlenatch Islands.
“We collected 45 tons over two months. That’s a just staggering number for us. About 55% of what we were able to collect was suitable for recycling, which is the really cool part, and then a large amount was also reused by locals for a variety of reasons,” said Quesnel. “Every day was an adventure.”
She talked about working in remote places for long periods of time. Sometimes the rain came in sideways, or they would have to stop because the tides are too high or the winds are too strong.
“There were songs and dances made up to bring spirits and morale up in those moments,” said Quesnel.
They found shotgun shell casings, tampon applicators, plastic flossers, bottle caps, straws “and little pokey things they put in the top of a Starbucks coffee to keep it warm.”
Reaching under a log to pull out a large piece of plastic, Quesnel suddenly recoiled, “Aww! Did I just grab a petrified rat!?!”
There were two plastic rats on that beach, which prompted her to speculate ‘did someone leave them there?’
“Or maybe there’s been a shipping container of plastic rats lost at sea that’s slowly washing up on our beach.”
Spirit of the West also collected more than 200 shoes. Luckily, there were no feet in the shoes, which was an issue a few years back. There were more left than right feet, ‘more large male size shoes versus kids’ shoes.’
“So if you’re in the older male category with bigger feet, you might want to watch your shoes. You’re more at risk of losing them, statistically speaking,” quipped Quesnel.
Quesnel said a lot this first involved figuring out the process, but Spirit of the West would definitely do it again.
She traced her involvement back to some colleagues, who have been cleaning up the central coast for the last couple of years.
“I’ve been kind of peripherally involved through the Wilderness Tourism Association and seeing the incredible work that they were able to accomplish.”
The opportunity that came was closer to home. Sierra Quadra has been holding an annual beach cleanup on Quadra Island since1998, but could not this Spring as a result of COVID restrictions.
So Spirit of the West Adventures applied for a contract to clean up Quadra and some of the surrounding islands.
Quesnel believes the provincial government will see the need to continue cleaning up BC’s beaches.
The recent storms have already washed more debris ashore.
She hopes that in the future there will also be more of a focus on addressing the source of this debris.
“We try to go above and beyond with the reporting requirements and track very specifically where we were finding particular items and how much plastics or styrofoam things that were identifiable, say aquaculture gear versus other materials that you find on the beach.”
The goal was to clean up to 400 kilometres of shoreline.
Spirit of the West hoped to reach that target, and managed to clean-up 357 kilometres. They were slowed down by weather, finding locations and the state of the materials. Quesnel said they found nets buried into the sand and ‘totally abandoned aquaculture sites that just were loaded with materials.’
“We’re still pretty proud of the 357 kilometres, because that’s still substantial,” she said.
(It is also a great deal more than the 200 kilometres their contract states is the minimum amount of area to be covered.)
Spirit of the West cleaned almost the entire circumference of Quadra, Read and Marina Islands, but spent less time on Cortes Island because another group was working there in the Spring.
”Government didn’t want to pay for the same place to be cleaned twice. So we were kind of strategically choosing the areas that we were covering,” explained Quesnel.
They focused on the northwest of Cortes, between the Gorge and northern tip of the island.
“We were trying to work with some of the local shellfish operators to find out what is still in play, what is abandoned and what is actually derelict versus what is just storage.”
Christine Robinson asked Quesnel if they could pick up some debris on Mittlenatch Island. Spirit of the West Adventures cleaned up around the circumference and picked up ‘a bunch of oyster trays balls, and floats’ that volunteers collected.
When I interviewed Quesnel at the beginning of the project, last October, she said, ““The volume of debris we are finding is mind blowing. We are focusing on larger items instead of the tiny little microplastics. We’re trying to get the larger items out before they become the microplastics. I know we have some very responsible aquaculture operations in our region, but the amount of aquaculture debris is mind boggling.”
Spirit of the West left some large items. They did not tow away any derelict vessels. They were not able to take a giant old fish farm net pen ring. There was also ‘a huge portion of dock’ that they believe came from a nearby aquaculture site.
One of the funniest incidents arose when Spirit of the West attempted to remove a couple of giant tires. Some of the local residents decided they wanted them, and promptly sat down on the tires.
Quesnel said they left tons of “tiny microplastics and things” on the beaches.
“You could go back and clean for weeks.”
More than half of what they did collect (about 55%) has been shipped to the Oceans Legacy Foundation marine debris recycling center in Delta.
“They will then sort through again and ensure that things meet their criteria for their various recycling avenues.”
The rest of the debris went to landfill or was repurposed.
Quadra Island residents took a significant portion. Some of the barrels are now rain barrels. Fish totes were scooped up for use in garden beds.
Some of the aquaculture debris was by local shellfish operations, but Spirit of the West discovered that a lot of the could not be repurposed because the industry is moving away from the black floats, netting, traps, and some of the plastic baskets.
In Australia, many of the plastics and other materials from beach clean-ups are traced back to the source. This makes it possible to make individual companies responsible for how their garbage is handled.
“There’s been talk over the years of trying to have more accountability for the waste that ends up on the beaches. That would be my huge recommendation to government,” said Quesnel.
While it is difficult to identify the exact point of origin, things like, for example, the plastic trays Spirit of the West collected are specific to the aquaculture industry.
In the future, Quesnel suggested that companies be required to use a stamp or a bar code, which makes it possible to trace where debris comes from. Or companies could pay a deposit when they purchase trays.
“As a tourism operator, I have to leave a kind of a security deposit with the government and it would be wonderful if those security deposits were used for times like when we found several aquaculture sites where somebody had literally just walked away with all their gear left in the water, all the docks, all the floats.”
Some of the debris was from fish farms, but Quesnel said the “plastic debris, and old docks” largely came from shellfish farming.
The operators had simply walked away from farms in Granite and Kanish Bays, on Quadra Island.
“Our focus was supposed to be intertidal and shoreline. So when there were things moored out in a bay, that were beyond our scope, we report those to DFO,” said Quesnel.
She described cleaning up your mess as part of being a responsible human.
“Every time you remove one of those styrofoam floats, you’re saving hundreds of thousands of little tiny balls from ending up on the beaches, in the food system, in a food chain.”
“We are consumers, whether we like it or not, but we have a lot of power and choice in what we’re buying and what messaging we’re giving to these companies in terms of I’m not going to purchase that because it’s heavily packaged, or I would like to purchase this because it’s got a reusable, returnable option.”
She no longer purchases ‘those milk jugs that have the little plastic tops that are wonderful for pouring’ because so many of them end up on beaches.
“It’s making small choices that will hopefully add up to big, big changes over time.”
Top photo credit: Some of the aquacultural debris Aleia Wylie (Team Leader) and Graham Vaughan (Boat Captain)- Photo by Brendan Kowtecky
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