British Columbia

'It's time to give back': Man begins solo quest to clean B.C.'s coastline

Neil Sherwood, 47, quit his job as a fishing guide, and is now on a mission to rid the rugged B.C. coastline of debris for as long as he can.

'Leaving this planet in the shape we’re leaving it in is inexcusable,' says Neil Sherwood

Neil Sherwood says he'll take 10 years roaming the B.C. shoreline for debris. Eventually, he hopes to make it to the Alaska border. (Neil Sherwood)

Six weeks ago, Neil Sherwood began what he says is his "life's calling." 

The 47-year-old Vancouver Island man quit his job as a fishing guide, and is now on a mission to rid the rugged B.C. coastline of garbage for as long as he can. 

So far, he's doing it alone. 

Sherwood said that while tenting on the coastline for periods lasting between one to two weeks, he's managed to clear 16 kilometres of trash on the northwest side of Vancouver Island.

This week, he finished clearing the small Catala Island, around 100 kilometres north of Tofino, and plans to head further north a few kilometres to Tatchu Point.

"Ninety-five per cent of what I pick up is plastic bottles," he said. He's also found propane bottles, a garden hose, construction supplies, and even a freezer.

Sherwood says the Styrofoam he's collected is especially troubling for ocean ecosystems. (Neil Sherwood)

Sherwood said he's gathered over 3,000 pounds of debris, including massive amounts of Styrofoam, which is especially troubling for the ecosystem.

"Leaving this planet in the shape we're leaving it in is inexcusable," he said.

Right now, Sherwood stashes the garbage he collects at locations further inland where the items can't re-enter the ocean, before members of the nearby Nuchatlaht First Nation will haul them by boat to the nearest recycling facility.

4 traumatic hours at sea

During his two decades as a fishing guide, Sherwood said he's made connections with local First Nations along the coast, and they've influenced how he views the land around him.

Then, three years ago, Sherwood fell out of a fishing boat and was stranded at sea for four hours without a life-jacket. "The ocean kept me alive when I clearly should have died, and now it's time to give back," he said.

"I'm starting off ... with zero budget," he said, adding that his decades of experience navigating the outdoors have equipped him with skills to survive.

He said freshwater along the coast is difficult to find, and he's had to be "resourceful in collecting rain and storing it."

Sherwood says plastic bottles account for "95 per cent" of what he finds along the shore, and half of them are from foreign countries across the Pacific ocean. (Neil Sherwood)

Sherwood said his connections nearby in the village Zeballos on the west coast of Vancouver Island, are on standby, should anything happen to him during the periods he's camping on shore, and over the weeks he's periodically returned inland to gather more resources.

Foreign plastic

Jordan Michaels, Sherwood's long-time friend and chief of the nearby Nuchatlaht First Nation, said "it's pretty amazing" to see Sherwood take on such a project.

"When he puts his mind to something, there's no stopping him," Michaels said. 

He said the open shoreline has "progressively gotten worse" since 2015, as debris from countries across the ocean floats to shore. "Nobody has been doing anything about it," he said.

Sherwood said about half the plastic bottles he finds are from foreign countries.

'Quite confident'

Vanessa Isnardy, the provincial coordinator for WildSafe BC, said people in the island wilderness should be prepared to encounter wildlife, such as wolves and cougars.

"Occasionally grizzlies will swim over," Isnardy said.

Sherwood said he's "quite confident" he'll be able to handle challenges ahead, including the seawolf packs north of Nootka Island.

He said he plans to continue cleaning B.C.'s coast for as long as he can, even if it means reaching the Alaska border years from now.

Michaels said Sherwood will have difficulty accessing the coastline during the winter as the weather worsens and the ocean swells. 

However, Sherwood said he sees the winter months as an exciting challenge.

"By getting out there and doing what I have to do … and showing people that (cleaning the shore) doesn't need a big production, hopefully others will be inspired."

About the Author

Adam van der Zwan is a journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. You can send him a news tip at adam.van.der.zwan@cbc.ca.

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