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A marine debris removal project was launched last year as a COVID-19 make-work project and they netted 127 million tonnes of garbage.Simon Ager/Maple Leaf Adventures

The beaches and headlands of British Columbia’s coastline are littered with man-made debris, brought on the relentless currents of the Northern Pacific Gyre. Decades’ worth of fishing gear, single-use plastics and polystyrene foam are left behind on the tides, polluting the most remote shorelines. For the second year in a row, the pandemic has created the opportunity to launch an industrial-scale cleanup.

Last year, when the B.C. government was offering billions of dollars for COVID-19 relief, Kevin Smith, who usually runs yacht-based “safaris” for well-heeled tourists through Maple Leaf Adventures, approached the province with a proposal to use marine tourism operators idled by the pandemic to get into rugged, hard-to-reach pockets of the coast to collect waste.

Working with coastal Indigenous communities, he led an expedition with 180 crew, nine ships, a tug and barge and a helicopter. Together, they covered 500 kilometres of the wildest stretches of coastline in the Great Bear Rainforest. “We would go into totally rugged wilderness areas, you know, no roads, no people, and they’re just covered in debris. It was fairly typical to fill a 300-kilogram bag for every small little cove.”

Stepping Up: With season cancelled, ecotourism group tackles marine waste

The crews recovered marine debris that could be traced from around the Pacific: crab traps from Oregon, single-use plastics from Asia - 127 tonnes of hard evidence of how generations have treated the Pacific Ocean as a garbage dump. It is just the tip of the iceberg - an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic waste are added to oceans around the world every year.

On Wednesday, B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman announced his government will fund another summer cleanup effort as the pandemic continues to derail the province’s tourism sector. With $9.5-million in provincial funding - double the budget from last year - he said the effort will reduce pollution in sensitive marine ecosystems, create jobs and economic stimulus and support local communities and Indigenous nations. This year, new partners will broaden the scope, with four projects covering 1,200 kilometres of coastline, as well as the removal of more than 100 derelict vessels from the waters around southern Vancouver Island.

In addition, this year’s program will focus on building the capacity to remanufacture the recovered plastic, rather than adding to landfills.

“We will have the people collecting the debris, checking back with people with local expertise about how best to handle contaminated materials, how to sort and ultimately move plastic toward plastic remanufacturing, so we make use of that garbage that has washed up on our shores,” Mr. Heyman told a news conference.

The non-profit Ocean Legacy Foundation is part of this year’s project. The foundation, which gathers marine debris in a Vancouver warehouse for recycling, will partner with three Indigenous nations working to clean up shorelines in Desolation Sound and the central Salish Sea. The foundation’s co-founder, Chloé Dubois, wants to see this type of investment continue. “This funding is a promising next step towards the economic development for coastal communities, as well as for damaged aquatic ecosystems,” she said at the news conference that announced the program. “It is also an opportunity to invest in innovative methods which divert marine debris from landfills, and to start shifting behaviors around how we manage our plastic resources.”

While Mr. Heyman did not commit to funding past this year, Mr. Smith said there is no shortage of raw materials if B.C. can adapt this endless supply of marine plastic waste as a resource for remanufacturing.

“It was truly overwhelming, just the sheer volume of it,” Mr. Smith said of last year’s campaign.

Seventy per cent of the debris reclaimed in 2020 was ghost fishing gear - nets, traps and long lines that have been lost or abandoned in the marine environment, where they can continue to ensnare and kill fish and other marine life for decades. Even after these materials eventually break down, they continue to pollute as micro-plastics that end up being consumed by sea life, birds and mammals.

With little prospect this year of international tourists returning to B.C., Mr. Smith welcomed the opportunity for the ecotourism sector to repay the environment that it depends on. “I was so glad that we are able to do it,” Mr. Smith said. “We’re protecting the coast that gives us our livelihood, and allows us to have this beautiful lifestyle, running these trips.”

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