Nfld. & Labrador

Polluted coastlines: How a diver reinvented his career to clean up N.L.'s harbours

Shawn Bath switched his underwater focus after experiencing an epiphany about the state of Newfoundland and Labrador's shorelines. As Andie Bulman writes, his work is the subject of a new documentary.

Shawn Bath, who found his passion cleaning up shorelines, is the focus of a new documentary

Shawn Bath removes car tires from the harbour where they were dumped. (Submitted by Chris Crockwell)

Shawn Bath had been a professional diver in the bays and inlets around Newfoundland for more than 21 years when he made a drastic career change.

His original job? Harvesting sea urchins off the ocean floor, a career not without its risks.

Those divers contend with dark, murky waters, sharp spines protruding from the bodies of this sought-after shellfish, and all the usual hazards that come with being a professional diver — including frostbite and decompression sickness.

It took a while for Bath to realize that the most dangerous thing in the ocean was the garbage nestled on the bottom.

"I used to toss bottles out the car window. I didn't even think about it. I'd see the mess in the harbours and think, 'This is disgusting,' but I didn't put two and two together," he said.

"I was part of the problem."

Bath assumed a government tender would one day call for divers to clean up the harbours. For years, he told himself he would be part of the solution at that time.

That call never came.

Bath found the path there himself. Now his work — which has drawn national media attention and has put a spotlight on the squalid state of coastlines around Newfoundland — is the focus of Hell or Clean Water, now streaming on CBC Gem.

A change of habit

Bath said his habits started to change through his girlfriend, who would be upset if he littered.

"[That] got me thinking."

In 2018, he was collecting employment insurance and — "just to keep myself busy" — started hauling tires from the harbour in Bay Roberts.

"I pulled 15,000 pounds of trash out of the ocean by myself. I realized then the government was never going to clean up the area," he said.

In a scene from the documentary film Hell or Clean Water, a clump of microplastics is taken from the ocean floor. (Submitted by Chris Crockwell)

Bath changed his career and started a non-profit organization, Clean Harbours Initiative. He quickly sank most of his cash into the venture.

"I was broke and at a loss for how to keep doing this work. I needed gear. I needed volunteers. I needed to spread the message and raise awareness," he said.

"That's about when I contacted Cody."

Cody Westman owns and operates a St. John's-based production company that creates documentaries, commercials, music videos and short films.

Westman said Bath was looking for a quote for video or commercial that would sell a message. As Bath explained his work, the director saw something else come together.

"I was amazed by what he was trying to accomplish," he said. "I knew it would make a great documentary."

A disgusting problem with a silver lining

To make Hell or Clean Water, a crew followed Bath over the course of a year and a half, documenting his work and life, including Bath's efforts to avoid bankruptcy and a breakup.

Westman found the problem of ocean plastics to be overwhelming.

Shawn Bath combs a beach for garbage. Whatever is on land is overshadowed by what he finds in the nearby water. (Submitted by Chris Crockwell)

"The problem [of ocean pollution] itself is vast and disgusting. The silver lining is that we were following someone who was trying to do something about it."

Bath says he gets depressed by the magnitude of waste underwater, and how many people — even when they are motivated to stop using plastic straws — don't understand the magnitude of how much microplastics can be scooped from the ocean floor.

"But I'm stubborn, and I believe that if people see this documentary, they'll come to understand just how much garbage is on the ocean floor and just how bad things are. The microplastics coming off tires, it's just wreaking havoc. People have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude about this."

Bath has taken everything from discarded fishing gear to boat engines out of the water. An unseen menace: old beer bottles.

"The harbours of Newfoundland are covered in stubby beer bottles. That's the most common thing," he said.

"They don't do as much damage as rubber tires, but sea urchins and clams do crawl inside them to spawn, then they get trapped. I know folks don't care about mollusks, but stubby beer bottles are little death traps."

Then there is "ghost gear" — old fishing lines, traps and gear that are abandoned. Bath says as much as 25 million pieces of fishing gear get left every year in the world's oceans. The problem hits close to home, too. He related the story of how harvesters in Petty Harbour retrieved old crab pots.

"Last year, a group of fishers with the Petty Harbour Fishermen's Co-operative received government money to bring in a fleet of old crab pots leftover from the year before," he said.

"They photographed a dead whale that had drowned in the pots. That's just the pots from a single year. Can you imagine how many marine animals are killed by ghost gear?"

Some people objected to the photos being shared, he said. "Other fishers don't want people to know about the dangers of ghost gear."

'There's less of a mess'

Bath hopes the film will draw attention to the work the Clean Harbours Initiative is continuing to do.

"We're always looking for volunteers and we're constantly raising money.… We need bodies out there, we need boats, and we need gear," Bath said.

To film Hell or Clean Water, the crew needed to dive in ice-cold waters. (Submitted by Chris Crockwell)

Westman hopes the film will get people talking.

"Awareness is great, but we also need to change our habits," he said. "We only recycle eight per cent of what we throw out. If this film even becomes a small part of the conversation, I'd be happy."

As for Bath, he said although the problem continues to overwhelm him, he has seen improvements since he began cleaning harbours in 2018.

"The Twillingate harbour is much cleaner than it was. You can tell there's a difference. You can see the ocean floor; there's less of a mess. It feels good."

Watch 'Hell or Clean Water' now streaming on CBC Gem.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Andie Bulman

Freelance contributor

Andie Bulman is a chef, writer and comedian in St. John's. She is the author of the book Salt Beef Buckets: A Love Story and writes frequently for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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