The coronavirus pandemic has created a rare opportunity for B.C.’s debris-strewn shoreline – eco-tour operators have free time and available boats to pick up ocean trash.
These tour operators have access to the most remote places on the coast, but they’re usually busy hosting guests on week-long safari tours. When coronavirus forced them to cancel their summer of coastal safaris, the Small Ship Tourism Operators Association came up with an alternate activity.
Nine small ships, fully crewed, set out on Aug. 18 and rendezvoused near Port Hardy. They sailed north around Cape Caution, and have started collecting waste on Aug. 20.
“We originally thought we’d get 20 to 30 tons, but we already have more than that,” said Maureen Gordon, spokesperson for the association and co-owner of Maple Leaf Adventures.
Now they estimate they’ll rescue between 75 and 100 tons of waste by the end of the two three-week expeditions.
Between the six businesses they have nine boats and nearly 100 crew who are all now employed as beach cleaners instead of tour guides. They’re in the central coast region of B.C., the hard to get to islands and inlets on the mainland between Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii.
“These places are many islands and waterways away from the nearest road,” Gordon said. Having a phalanx of expert mariners with spare time on their hands is highly unusual, and valuable.
“It’s really great because it means they’re not sitting around on EI or leaving the industry. We obviously make out living from the natural world, so they’re all really quite proud to be able to take care of it now,” Gordon said.
The ocean crew are bagging the waste, weighing it, securing them to the shore line and marking the GPS coordinates. At the end of the six weeks, a helicopter and a barge will follow the path and collect all the garbage. They’re also taking estimates of the contents — a percentage of ghost fishing equipment, plastic bottles, Polystyrene foam, etc.
The association already has a longstanding relationship with First Nations in the areas, and brought this idea forward to them before any plans were set in place. Each of the five nations, Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv, Gitga’at and Nuxalk gave their support, requesting that the crews do not come into the communities.
The B.C. government has committed $3.5 million towards the project, as part of its Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative Fund. The money will go towards crew wages and fuel costs. A portion will also be sent to the local First Nations who will clean certain beaches they asked the small ship operators to steer clear of, either because they’re too close to the community, or important for food gathering or cultural reasons.
To get updates on the expedition, follow the hashtag #BCCoastalCleanup.
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