Ocean litter 'disgusting' but scientist says attitudes are changing

Seabird ecologist Bill Montevecchi says he sees a lot of garbage from the sea in his line of work. But he also sees an improvement in attitudes about that garbage.

There are barbecues, bikes and beer cans on the bottom of the ocean floor, but at least we're mad about it

Seabird ecologist Bill Montevecchi says despite the alarming underwater finds, people are less likely now to dump trash over the wharf.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have been tossing garbage in the ocean for a long time, says seabird ecologist Bill Montevecchi.

And despite recent photos from provincial harbours of barbecues, toilets and even a dryer full of clothes sitting on the ocean floor, Montevecchi says it's getting better.

Corey Morris says his most surprising find was this clothes dryer. When he opened the door he found work clothes and boots still inside. (Submitted by Corey Morris)

"When people do it now, they really stand out as a culprit," he said. "Whereas 20 years ago some of that garbage, well that was just standard operating procedure."

Montevecchi said he is used to seeing garbage from the water in his line of work, but most of what he sees is discarded fishing gear.

The brightly coloured ropes and lines from nets often get woven into the nests of seabirds, he said.

Beverage containers cover the floor of a harbour in Newfoundland. (Submitted by Corey Morris)

"It has an affect on the mortality of the animals and it's pervasive. If you went to Cape St. Mary's [Ecological Reserve] and looked at the nests you'd see virtually all of them have fishing gear or plastic strapping in them," he said.

Every so often, the birds will become tangled in the rope.

"It's nylon, it's synthetic, they can't cut that stuff with their beaks, and they just die a horrific death."

It's an attitude

Large garbage in the harbours — like that revealed by Corey Morris, an adjunct professor in the Department of Ocean Science at Memorial University whose project surveying the effects of harbour infrastructure showed enormous amounts of garbage accumulating underwater — won't directly affect the birds, said Montevecchi.

"We’re in Newfoundland, we have to lead the way for a clean ocean and not tag along," said seabird ecologist Bill Montevecchi. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

He believes, though, that there is an indirect effect.

"It's an attitudinal thing. I'm sure somebody who would chuck a washing machine over the side here wouldn't have much consideration of a seabird ecological reserve either," he said.

"It's a shocker to see that … and more than that, it's relatively disgusting to realize that we just treat the ocean like a receptacle to just dump stuff in."

'It's getting better'

But Montevecchi said those attitudes have been changing over the years. Morris's research, photos and public talk about the undersea trash, and the resulting public outcry about the mess, will only help change attitudes more, he said.

"It has to get better, it just has to get better. It just has to go beyond doing this at all, zero tolerance, on land and particularly in the ocean."

More enforcement and steeper fines from Fisheries and Oceans Canada could also help keep the garbage out of the sea, he said.

Household items and building materials were often found sitting on harbour floors. (Submitted by Corey Morris)

Because no matter how much public outcry there is against dumping in the water, Montevecchi said there will be those who just don't understand the value or the fragility of the ocean.

"There's no question some people don't get it, and those people shouldn't be here. We're in Newfoundland, we're surrounded by ocean," he said.

"It runs our economy, it runs our culture ... If anybody's supposed to get it, it's us."