The Great Beach Cleanup

A look into a day in the life of the Marine Debris Removal Initiative.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I returned from the Marine Debris Removal Initiative (MDRI) 2.0. The coast of British Columbia is fortunate to have some of the world’s leading tour operators. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with them.

Collectively, and individually, they have been recognized with multiple awards from around the world for their exceptional tourism experiences and their commitment to sustainability. They have supported important conservation initiatives for decades, including many initiated by Raincoast.

The MDRI is a joint initiative of those small ship tour operators, the provincial government, and in collaboration with the local First Nations of the Central and North Coast. It is a brilliant idea that has given employment to over 100 workers from this industry and life-saving revenues to companies struggling to survive the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has removed hundreds of tons of plastic debris from the spectacular remote beaches of the north and central coasts. I took part in the first initiative last fall, and when I returned I talked constantly about how overwhelmed and inspired I was. I joined nine vessels from six companies on the coast as we cleaned hundreds of kilometers of shoreline.

The participating ships and companies were:

Cascadia (Maple Leaf Adventures)
Columbia III (Mothership Adventures)
Great Bear II (Ocean Adventures)
Island Odyssey (Bluewater Adventures)
Island Roamer (Bluewater Adventures)
Island Solitude (Bluewater Adventures)
Maple Leaf (Maple Leaf adventures)
Passing Cloud (Outer Shores Adventures)
Swell (Maple Leaf Adventures)

Our impact

Last year we returned over 127 tonnes of mostly plastic debris to Port Hardy. It was my privilege to once again captain the Island Roamer on the first three week phase of this year’s effort, which included some significant improvements over last year. Sadly, because of the extremely short timeline last year, there was no opportunity to arrange for any significant recycling of the debris. The vast majority of it went to the landfill.

This year we made great efforts to sort the debris on the beach, and re-sort it again on the barge. Significant amounts of the debris will enter into a recycling stream thanks to the efforts of the tour operators, Fox Disposal, and Ocean Legacy.

This time, we also had a larger barge, with almost double the capacity of the one we had last year. It was thought that with the time it would take to sort the debris on the beach, we wouldn’t be able to remove as much as we did last year and the larger barge would save one trip back to Port Hardy. However, applying the knowledge we gained last year to the organization and effort, we not only exceeded the expectations for this year, we collected nearly the same amount of debris in the first half as we removed on the whole project last year!

In the first three weeks alone, thanks to the massive efforts and enthusiasm of our crews, we have already unloaded over 104 tonnes of debris! The project has often been referred to as the Great Beach Cleanup. While this conjures up images of an evening stroll down a sandy beach at sunset with a little pogo stick picking up gum wrappers, the reality of it is as far from that as you can get.

Drone photo of a barge filled with large garbage.
Photo by Jeff Reynolds.

This is more what our “day on the beach” looked like.

Instead, picture zodiacs, skillfully piloted among the rocks and the crashing surf, the crews, carrying packs, cutting tools, heavy wet burlap bags, large helicopter lift bags, and weighing and recording equipment,  leaping at the top of the swell from zodiacs onto jagged rocky shores covered with uber slippery kelp.

We then drag all that equipment over randomly piled logs and wet slippery rocks up to the top of the bouldery beach to a lift site we have chosen above the high tide line. Fanning out, we follow the surge channels and areas where the debris is heaviest, crawling on hands and knees right up into the salal at the edge of the forest. Here lies a treasure trove of the lighter debris; tens of thousands of water bottles, small chunks of styrofoam, small Japanese styrofoam gillnet floats, oil buckets, detergent bottles, etc.

Large hard plastic dragger balls can be thrown hundreds of feet into the forest by the winter storms that ravage this rugged outer coast. With sharp salal poking at us, we heave debris out into the open; mostly onto the enormous piles of logs where it joins the nets, ropes, barrels, tires, and other large plastic debris that has been trapped by the logs.

On rare occasions, our determination is rewarded by the discovery of treasure; a Japanese glass fishing float that has made its journey across the Pacific undamaged. 

We make dozens of trips across the slippery logs and rocks, hauling heavy burlap bags bulging with the debris we find, back and forth to the lift site. Larger items like nets and ropes are often trapped and must be cleared from under and around logs. This can involve finding a long pry-bar and with two or three crew moving enormous logs to free important pieces of a trapped net. When that’s not possible the nets are cut with small sharp knives. A single net wrapped with large poly lines can take a three-person crew a day to free; it can fill five helicopter lift bags totaling over a tonne and a half of plastic.

Nets of this size must be cut into manageable chunks of 200 to 300 pounds so the crews can push, pull, roll, and drag them up to the lift site and into the bags. Huge hawsers made of poly plastic fibers, 4 or 5 inches thick,  are impossibly intertwined with logs, sticks and rocks into not-yet- invented knots. Untangling them or cutting them can take hours, let alone dragging or carrying them across the slippery and unstable logs and rocks like a huge giant snake (we referred to them as Anacondas).

Once all the debris is assembled near the lift bags, the sorting begins. The large plastic dragger balls are strung on lines salvaged from the beach. They will be tied to the outside of the bags as “hitchhikers”. Large chunks of Styrofoam (we call them “marshmallows”) are trussed up like a birthday present and similarly tied to the outside of the lift bags, as well as plastic barrels, tires, etc. Rope and net goes into the bottom of the lift bags to stabilize the load. Poly pipe, sometimes filled with vile unknown substances, are sawn into 4-foot lengths so they can be stuffed inside the bags. 

An insane assortment of other debris is placed into burlap bags and weighed before putting it in the bag. The weight of each of the groups of materials is recorded as they go into the bag and the total weight of the bag is written on the outside of the bag. That information is essential to the crew who comes to lift the bag. The amount of debris is astounding. A small beach, less than a couple of hundred meters long, can fill five or six lift bags weighing 2 to 3 tonnes. Every day, as we leave a beach we have cleaned, we see the white lift bags ready to be picked up. Along with the physical exhaustion, we feel a deep sense of pride. The joy of that moment is invariably tempered by the realization that we are on our way to the next beach, which will be as fouled or worse…and that there are a thousand more beaches waiting for us to clear.

At the end of a long day, we pack all the gear off the beach, leap into the zodiac again and return to the ship for a fine, hearty meal. As crews tend to the equipment and their own gear in the evening, conversations are inevitably about how we might be able to end this constant flow of plastic onto our beaches, how we can continue to clean what comes in, and how more recycling infrastructure could be built. At the end of the day, I join the daily 8:00PM captains meeting on the VHF radio. Each captain reports the progress on their assigned sites and new assignments are given out for the next day.

Planning for each day

There are so many variables that the planning must be constantly revised. I am impressed each time by the positive collaborative nature of the planning. It is a fantastic “brain trust” collectively representing hundreds of years of experience on this coast and all suggestions are positive and constructive. 

The youngest (and most tech savvy) of my crew is 18 years old. Taz, a.k.a.”Data Dawg”, stays up late, compiling the data, entering it into the computer, and sending it via satellite phone to Mike on Cascadia, who works late coordinating the next day’s assignments and planning and collating the data. I crawl into my bunk. 

Alarm is set for 6:30AM, when we will get up and do it all over again.

After a couple of days of “picking”, we are relieved to have a day of relatively lighter work of a “lift day”. Two or three boats in rotation will work with the helicopter to lift the filled bags off the beaches, while the rest of the fleet continues to clean beaches. I put my crews in place at the lift sites. Many are the same beaches we have cleaned. They scramble up the beach to the bags. As the tug and barge moves near, we hear on the handheld radios, “chopper is in the air”. One of the captains has laid out the lift sites for the most efficient use of the helicopter and directs the pilot, Jason. 

As their sites are called out, they switch to the “air ops” channel and directly guide Jason, our brilliant pilot, to the site. With impressive skill, he eases a long line with as many as 5 straps into the sometimes tiny spaces close to the trees. While one of the crew holds the ball and connector mechanism, the other runs the straps through the bags. The ground crew steps away and hand signals to Jason that he is clear to lift. The roar of the chopper increases as Jason tests the weight. Then the bags and their odd collection of hitchhikers slowly rise into the sky for the short trip to the barge. This is repeated with amazing speed.

Most turnarounds are in the 2-3 minute range. It is exciting and extremely efficient. Each vessel moves their crews to the next set of lift sites while the chopper is lifting at the other vessel’s crew sites. Invariably, as I pick my crews up from the beach, they let out a whoop of joy. They ask me to pause on the way to the next site so they can take a picture of the beach they worked so hard to clean.

At the end of the lift cycle, we have added more than 15 tonnes of debris to the barge. We finished earlier than expected. My crew has certainly earned a few hours off. Instead, one of them suggests we go back to the Roamer and get our gear. “We can get a good start on cleaning another beach?”  “Are you sure?’ I ask.

“Hell yeah!” is the unanimous response.

Gratitude for all the effort

I am constantly gobsmacked by the fantastic efforts of all the crews from all the boats, including cooks, captains, and owners to pry, cut, pull, or drag as much of this debris off of the beaches as possible. Their appetite for brutal hard work is truly inspiring. The camaraderie, the joking,  and the positive spirit is very difficult to describe. While the constant mantra is “BE SAFE!”, there is an enthusiasm that is indomitable. Even near the end of 21 days, as the aches and pains are showing, there is still such positive energy. I was so blessed with such a powerful, smart, and committed crew.

I have been blessed to be a part of this group of businesses for 22 years. Watching this effort, it was impossible to believe that these businesses are nominally competitors. The owners of these businesses worked together to make this happen because of their love of the coast, their respect for each other and for their crews. Their solid integrity fostered cooperation rarely ever seen in any industry. The captains generously shared their experience, local knowledge, and suggestions. Crews from the vessels worked together seamlessly.

I won’t deny that there was a bit of positive competitive spirit around the volumes of debris collected each day. We had a monster day on one of the outer islands (part of an outer coast ecological reserve). Mike had announced on the radio that we had smashed the previous single-day record with a whopping 2600 kg. collected, nearly doubling the previous best. As we were steaming into the anchorage late that evening, the other vessels saluted us with their horns, as my crew passed high fives around the wheelhouse.

Once again, as we prepared for the next day, the conversation turned to “Where to from here?”

More on that to come.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.