British Columbia

'It's heartbreaking': volunteers overwhelmed by marine debris in Clayoquot Sound

Volunteers who are cleaning up marine debris from a remote area on the west coast of Vancouver Island say they are overwhelmed by what they've found.

Clayoquot Cleanup estimates it will easily double the 200 to 300 tonnes of debris first forecast

Some of the marine debris collected in the remote reaches of Clayoquot Sound. (Josh Temple)

Volunteers cleaning up marine debris from a remote and otherwise pristine area on the west coast of Vancouver Island say they are overwhelmed by what they've found.

Just a few days into the two-week mission, volunteers with Clayoquot Cleanup have collected far more trash than expected from the shorelines of Clayoquot Sound, said founder Josh Temple.

"We anticipated that there would be in the neighbourhood of 200 to 300 tonnes of debris in Clayoquot Sound. But boy, did we ever get that wrong," he said by phone from a beach in Hesquiaht Harbour, north of Tofino.

Volunteers with Clayoquot Cleanup started combing the shorelines of the region on June 1. (Josh Temple)

Temple estimates the group will collect twice that amount when the entire cleanup of Clayoquot Sound is complete.

So far, the group is gathering the junk on beaches for pickup. Helicopters and a barge will be used to remove it for good.

Volunteers took on the cleanup because the provincial and federal governments were not dealing with debris from cargo containers that fell off a ship in November and spread along the west coast of the island, Temple said.

"Somehow, oil spills and stuff get attention, but this is solid petroleum waste and styrofoam that is breaking up all up and down our shores."

The foam from shipping insulation that is breaking down on beaches is particularly concerning, Temple said.

"You scoop your hands up and all it is is foam," he said.

"You try and get sand or any organic debris like sticks or seaweed and it's just not there. It's completely covered up by the yellow insulation foam from all these shipping containers that washed up on shore last fall."

The debris that has washed up on beaches ranges from plastic water bottles to fishing nets. (Josh Temple)

Call for national strategy

The amount of marine trash found so far shows cleanup efforts are desperately needed on B.C. shorelines, said Courtenay-Alberni NDP MP Gord Johns.

But Johns is calling on the federal government to come up with a national plan to deal with marine debris, rather than rely on the efforts of volunteers.

He notes the issue was not addressed in the $1.5 billion ocean protection plan announced in November.

Volunteers say removing marine debris can be dangerous work. On volunteer was cut while trying to remove a fishing net tangled on the beach. (Josh Temple)

"Once again, we are seeing the burden of cleaning up the coastline falling on the backs of local residents on the West Coast," he said. "The government hasn't created mechanisms to get funding to help contribute to dealing with marine debris."

So far, $75,000 has been raised through donations to pay for the Clayoquot cleanup, Temple said.

With the job proving much larger than anticipated, he is hoping the group will eventually receive some some financial help from either the federal or provincial governments.

In the meantime, he said volunteers will keep giving their own time and paying out of pockets for boat fuel to keep the operation going.

"We are going to worry about the trash now and how to pay for it later," he said.