Taking out the trash
Last Saturday, the Great Canadian Shoreline Clean Up, a partnership between the Vancouver Aquarium, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Vancouver Airport (YVR) launched the 19th annual fall shoreline clean up program.
This year's program kicked off with over 250 volunteers collecting 853 kg of shoreline litter on Iona Beach in Richmond.
Other beaches are scheduled for similar volunteer cleanups throughout the upcoming year.
This year's debris collecting activities are particularly important considering the expected problems stemming from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Ocean currents and winds are expected to deposit debris from this disaster along much of the West Coast, including here in Vancouver.
“The problem is we don't know when to expect it or what to expect,” commented Carolyn Dawe, the Youth Engagement Officer for WWF.
The WWF handles the marketing side of the shoreline cleanup and getting communities involved in clean up activities is major organization effort during the best of times; however preparing for a large influx of debris in additional challenge.
“It is important to be flexible and work with communities as soon as it arrives” said Dawe.
In their guide “Transport of Marine Debris from the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami” the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans noted that the original estimated 20-25 million tonnes of debris is now thought to be closer to 1.54 million tonnes. Much of that debris is expected to arrive on our shorelines in 2013. Part of the problem in making estimations are the difficulties involved in debris tracking.
“The joint Tsunami Debris Coordinating Committee (TDCC) has debris monitoring, including radiation monitoring in place,” said Stuart Bertrand, Junior Public Affairs Officer for the Ministry of Environment, adding that a co-ordinated effort has been made with government agencies in the US.
While the initial volume of debris was estimated to be quite large, it is anticipated that much of it will sink before crossing the Pacific Ocean, with only the most buoyant and durable objects surviving the crossing. Some debris may also remain in the ocean for many years collecting in the North Pacific Garbage Patch, a circular ocean current also known as a gyre.
While it is sometimes said that this floating trash is dense enough to walk on, the reality is that this garbage patch is composed mainly of small pieces of plastic. This debris poses a significant risk to marine animals who accidentally ingest it.
Identifying how much of the debris washing up on local shores may have originated in Japan is hard to gauge.
“Things wash up from other countries all the time” noted Jill Dwyer, Manager of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. “The amount of litter due to the tsunami is a small portion of what goes into our ocean each year.”
Amongst all of this uncertainty, some concerns were addressed regarding the risk of radioactive debris.
“The marine debris was generated and dispersed offshore several days prior to the Fukushima nuclear reactor plant leak. Contamination from radiation is very unlikely,” said Stuart Bertrand. “Radiation risk to marine species and ecosystems in BC is also low.”
To date no cleanup activities have noted any radioactive material collecting on the shorelines.
In preparation for the potential influx of debris due to the tsunami, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup have developed a tsunami page on their website where people can register to cleanup when it is is needed. People can also use the website to advise them of locations where suspected tsunami debris has washed ashore.
Jill Dwyer also noted that these cleanups could be a bit different than the regular efforts because they could be dealing with items that require extra safety considerations.
“We were looking for something that really fit with our sustainability objectives and we think this [involvement with the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup] is an environmental initiative that really connects us to the community, and it gives an opportunity for our people who work at the airport to come out and volunteer”, said Anne Murray, Vice president community and environmental affairs for the Vancouver airport authorities.
Members of Vancouver's communities are also encouraged to volunteer and put in the extra effort required to keep our beaches clean.
“Local communities take pride in their waterways,” said Dawe. With the Pacific Ocean and the beach forming such an important part of the Vancouver lifestyle, this effort to keep them clean should be something that we should all be concerned about.