Even though Canada has the longest coastline, approximately 243,042 km, in the world, the inherent problem of marine debris is still largely hidden and unreported. This is partly due to the unique geography of Canada’s coastline.
Valerie Thom, B. Ed.
Executive Director, PITCH-IN CANADA
July 15, 2009
Even though Canada has the longest coastline, approximately 243,042 km, in the world, the inherent problem of marine debris is still largely hidden and unreported. This is partly due to the unique geography of Canada’s coastline. Over 66% is in the Arctic, along the coasts of Nunavut and Northwest Territories and dozens of islands, which is covered in ice for much of the year. Much of the remaining 34% is remote and inaccessible, making efforts to assess the true dimensions of marine debris on Canadian shores very challenging.
Our organization, PITCH-IN CANADA, in partnership with Environment Canada, Marine Division, undertook this challenge in 1995, designing, testing then implementing a unique, first of its kind, National Marine Debris Surveillance Program to be undertaken on the two year-round accessible coasts (East and West) of Canada. The important parameters were that the surveys could be conducted accurately and effectively by local volunteers on beaches that were as far removed from onshore anthropogenic influences as possible, and that the results would be scientifically and statistically valid. In consultation with Dr. Trevor Dixon, who had designed research protocols for such surveys on the coasts of Great Britain, and Mr. Murray Besler, a statistician, we developed a survey methodology that met those parameters and was uniquely suited to the more remote and often harsh conditions found at the research sites.
To anyone familiar with the universal problems of marine debris, the results over the 5-7 year research period were not surprising, and consistent with similar scientific surveys conducted in other areas of the world. However, as our Surveillance Program covered the two opposing coasts of Canada, each with its own unique oceanic, geographic, cultural, and anthropogenic influences, the results provided some interesting differences. A significant proportion of the plastic debris, containers, on the West coast could be identified as coming from foreign, commercial sources, usually Japan or Korea, leading to the conclusion that it came from ships, either accidentally or purposely discharging into the Pacific Ocean. On the East coast, the type of, and markings on, most of the plastic containers indicated a local source, most likely from household or small ship garbage entering the ocean through poorly maintained landfills or being purposely dumped.
Our survey on both coasts, and like others on the East coast, also identified quantities of fishing related marine debris. Lost nets and lobster/crab/prawn traps and pots, while accounting for only five percent of marine debris, are a significant danger to the marine environment on both coasts. In one incident off the Newfoundland coast, one lost trap was found to contain the remains of at least 10 otters.
Awareness of the true dimensions and consequences of marine debris is finally reaching a critical mass, both in Canada and around the world. Our organization was initially founded, over forty years ago, on the issue of marine debris, when a group of concerned citizens began conducting beach clean-ups in Victoria, British Columbia. From being regarded then as local eccentrics, such civic concern is now seen as being in the front lines of trying to combat a worldwide environmental catastrophe.
Whereas marine debris in Canada used to be perceived as just a coastal problem, it has now become critical that all Canadians realize their responsibility for the marine environment. PITCH-IN CANADA conducts environmental education and awareness programs, which emphasize the responsibility that all Canadians have for the health and cleanliness of our oceans, even in our two land-locked provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan. PITCH-IN CANADA programs include the annual PITCH-IN WEEK: Operation Clean Sweep campaign, Canada’s largest volunteer environmental campaign, during which hundreds of thousands of volunteers undertake shoreline and land-based clean-ups as well as beautification, restoration, recycling, composting and environmental education projects. Our campaign themes and materials reflect the growing awareness that litter discarded on streets then washed into storm drains and uncontainerized garbage left to blow into lakes, streams and rivers, will most likely end up as marine debris, polluting our oceans, endangering and poisoning marine life and impacting our fisheries and maritime industries.
Another shoreline clean-up campaign that originated with the U.S. Centre for Marine Conservation, the International Coastal Clean-up Campaign, organized in Canada by PITCH-IN CANADA for several years, is now conducted annually in September by the Vancouver Aquarium as the TD Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. It involves thousands of volunteers in shoreline clean-up projects across Canada.
On the East Coast, the Clean Nova Scotia Foundation has been partnering with the public, governments, and businesses to advocate for a clean land and marine environment in that province for over 20 years. Currently, in cooperation with various agencies including the Small Craft Harbours branch of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Foundation will be launching a pilot project aimed at eliminating the disposal of wastes at sea by the commercial fishing sector through proper land based management at 20 harbours throughout Nova Scotia. The results, including educational materials, will be shared with other harbours in Canada’s Maritime provinces, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.
Public education and increasing awareness of the deleterious effects of the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag as litter on both the land and marine environment, has resulted in another popular initiative in many communities across Canada. Plastic shopping bags are now frequently subject to a surcharge, or banned altogether. Many stores, and even some communities, now produce and sell their own reusable shopping bags.
A consequence of climate change has been the rapid reduction of sea ice in Canada’s northern waters, making the North West passage from the Atlantic to Pacific a year-round shipping route a real possibility in the near future. This development has brought much greater federal government attention to the northern marine environment. Consequently, aerial surveillance of Canada’s Arctic waters to monitor shipping, deter potential polluters, and enforce pollution-prevention regulations are being increased in frequency, timing, and coverage. Aircraft will also be upgraded to allow surveillance during darkness, a time when pollution often occurs. As well, as part of the federal Health of the Oceans initiative, Transport Canada will invest $0.8 million over five years to develop and implement a Ship Waste Reduction Strategy to further prevent marine pollution from ships.
Another recent federal initiative regarding marine debris, this one aimed at public education, is the recent release by Fisheries and Oceans Canada of an excellent DVD on Marine Debris. Providing a comprehensive overview of the problem, both worldwide and in Canada, the four-part DVD builds a compelling case for individual and concerted action.
A long-awaited development in Canada’s international responsibilities towards the marine environment relates to the MARPOL Convention. To date, Canada has not ratified Annex V of the MARPOL Convention, though it has implemented its provisions in regulations under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001. At the July, 2009, meeting of the IMO, the Government of Canada announced that a proposal to ratify Annex V, and other maritime conventions, will be tabled in the House of Commons, as required by Canadian law, on September 14, 2009. A first step, and hopefully a successful one, towards ratification.
In summary, in Canada, many public, corporate, ngo, and government initiatives to prevent and combat marine debris are now being implemented, in addition to those that have been underway for many years. For some of these undertakings, it is better late than never, and, hopefully, still in time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Valerie Thom, B. Ed.
Valerie Thom’s interest in the environment extends over 40 years. A member of the first class to graduate from the University of British Columbia as an Elementary Science and Environmental Education specialist, she taught in British Columbia for eight years. During that time, she became involved as a volunteer teacher-sponsor of an Outdoors Unlittered Club, as PITCH-IN CANADA was then known. She left teaching to work with PITCH-IN CANADA first as a Program Manager, writing, developing, and implementing educational and community programs aimed at raising public awareness of every individual’s responsibility for maintaining and improving their environment. Among the many materials she has authored is the ever-popular and widely used “Re-THINK” educational unit for primary school, which encourages students to explore solid waste management practices in their homes, their school, and their community, demonstrating the importance of refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle and proper waste management. As Executive Director, she oversees the ongoing development of PITCH-IN CANADA as it evolves to meet the ever greater challenges facing our environment today.
ABOUT PITCH-IN CANADA
PITCH-IN CANADA is a national non-profit organization founded in 1967 by several volunteers concerned about the proliferation of packaging and its effects on the land and marine environments. They recognized that personal action, with assistance from, but not dependent on, governments and other stakeholders, is needed to conserve, enhance and protect the environment and to reduce, recycle and reuse waste.
Today, PITCH-IN CANADA involves millions of volunteers in various action programs, from initiating recycling and composting programs to cleaning up and beautifying shorelines, wilderness and urban areas.
Under the direction of its national Board of Directors, PITCH-IN CANADA works closely with other voluntary organizations, all levels of government, the media and others interested in supporting and promoting its objectives.
PITCH-IN CANADA is a founding member of Clean World International, 1976, and a founding supporter of Clean up the World, 1992.