Below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, where it meets the rugged central coast of BC, lies a mainly unseen and devastating problem. Marine debris large and small – lots of plastic foam, rope, bottles, and fishing gear – litters the shoreline, embedding itself into the ecosystem and endangering marine life.

“In a way it's kind of a slow-moving, hidden problem. While we usually find some things tossed up, even we didn't realize the extent of it,” says Maureen Gordon ’88, co-owner of Maple Leaf Adventures. “What I found really interesting was hearing about walking up the shoreline and then stepping into the forest, and stepping onto basically a surface of plastic bottles covered in moss on the forest floor.”

Maple Leaf Adventures is a Victoria-based boutique expedition cruise company that Gordon co-owns with her husband, Kevin Smith. Their focus on regenerative tourism on the BC coast goes beyond the principles of ecotourism, as they aim for their ships to leave a natural destination in better shape than when they arrived. 

“We love what nature gives us. It's part of our identity to create a business that celebrates that, that uses the beauty of nature without destroying it,” Maureen says.

In March 2020, it became evident that BC’s tourism industry would be impacted hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Maureen and Kevin, along with six other companies that make up the Small Ship Tour Operators Association (SSTOA), looked at doing something proactive. They were intent on creating a project that aligns with their goals of conservation and restoration, while keeping as many of their skilled employees working – from wilderness guides to onboard chefs.

“We realized we had quite an amazing skillset from people who aren’t usually available. So we said, ‘Where could we go and what could we do that would be a benefit to the province or the country?’” Maureen says. “Kevin had been part of big beach cleanups off northern Vancouver Island when he was a park ranger. And he realized we could do this because we and our colleagues have these small expedition boats that are outfitted to live for weeks in the wilderness and that can access remote places.”

With the Great Bear Rainforest chosen as the beneficiary of a massive-scale coastal cleanup, this group of tour operators wrote a proposal and pitched the project to the provincial and federal governments. They found financial support from the province through The Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative Fund.

On August 18, the Marine Debris Removal Initiative began the first of two three-week cleanup expeditions on the central coast. Through the course of six weeks, 100 people cleared some 540 km of coastline.

“It was a real eye-opener,” says Mike Jackson, retired SMUS science teacher who took part in both cleanups as assistant expedition leader. “I just had no real concept of the scale. … To go to places that hadn’t ever been cleaned and to see the huge amount of stuff that was there was crazy. It was powerful to be part of this.”

The process for each of the three-week expeditions was that teams would spend the first two weeks putting as much debris as possible into massive bags and leave them above the water line in an open place. During the third week, a helicopter would pick up the bags – each weighing up to 300 kg – and drop them off on a barge for proper disposal.

When the project was initially pitched to government, the group anticipated they would be able to remove 20-30 tonnes of debris during the two expeditions. That estimate changed within the first couple days.

“On Day 2 or 3, as soon as we got to the outer coast areas, we realized that there would be bags and bags and bags of debris to collect. We actually had to shut down cleaning operations earlier than we intended because we wouldn’t have room on the barge for all of it,” Mike says.

In total, the MDRI removed 127 tonnes of debris from the shoreline in the Great Bear Rainforest.

They tracked what was collected over the course of the two expeditions and found that abandoned or lost fishing gear – nets, floats and lines – and aquaculture equipment made up the largest amount of debris. Literal tonnes of polystyrene foam, rubber tires and consumer plastics (from water bottles and food containers to buckets and rope) was also collected.

In addition to Canadian and American garbage, the group found debris originating from the other side of the Pacific Ocean: Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Russia, Philippines, and Indonesia.

“You have all of this stuff littering the coast, but the problem is that plastic and foam breaks down into smaller and smaller chunks until you've got little pieces that are a few millimeters in size,” Mike says. “The microplastics basically get into the bodies of all kinds of marine organisms through the food chain, and the chemicals that are in the plastic can have a physiological impact and cause damage to those organisms. [The scientific community doesn’t] yet know the full scale of the impact of this stuff on organisms and the environment.”

Maureen reflects on her English literature classes in Grades 11 and 12 at SMUS as being instrumental in shaping who she is and the type of business she and her husband now run.

“One of the most impactful experiences I had at school was a class I had with a teacher Grenfell Featherstone where we were looking at the history of ideas and literature. It really opens up young people's minds to what values can do in a society and how they can change the society and how you can become conscious of the values you find important,” she says. “I really think that that class, taught by that teacher, stayed with me as I now run a values-driven business.”

Looking ahead, Maureen says the first MDRI was so successful that the SSTOA is looking to run a second cleanup, given that they expect another tourist season negatively impacted by the pandemic.

“The size of the expedition was unprecedented in BC – if not Canadian – history. But we had to leave so much behind,” Maureen says. “We’ve cleaned one stretch but the rest needs cleaning, as well. The BC coast gives us our livelihood, so it’s only natural that we want to do what we can to preserve it.”