Canada

COVID-19: B.C. tour operators who lost two seasons stay afloat during pandemic cleaning up marine debris

Kevin Smith, president of Maple Leaf Adventures, and Russell Markel, owner of Outer Shores Expeditions, talk about how devastating the pandemic has been to their business and how a B.C.-government funded program to clean up the shoreline has helped keep them working while doing something good for the planet.

Crews work to remove marine debris from B.C.'s coastline. Photo: Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C.

B.C. adventure tour operators suffered a devastating loss to their business when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but instead of docking their ships, some banded together to use their expertise to clean up marine debris from the ocean.

Kevin Smith, president of Maple Leaf Adventures, and Russell Markel, owner of Outer Shores Expeditions, had no idea they’d end up collecting 127 metric tonnes of debris from B.C.’s coastline in just one seven-week expedition last year.

And this year, they will exceed that amount.

“The plastic gets hammered by storms and logs, and becomes micro-plastics….It stifles life and it is devastating to witness,” said Smith, who was reached via satellite phone Saturday in the Estavan Group, a small archipelago in the Hecate Strait region on B.C.’s North Coast.

“We need to be talking about this and we need to be taking it very seriously.”

Kevin Smith, president of Maple Leaf Adventures, has been working during the pandemic to help clean up marine debris from B.C.’s shoreline. Photo: Grace Van Helvoirt/Wilderness Association of B.C.
Kevin Smith, president of Maple Leaf Adventures, has been working during the pandemic to help clean up marine debris from B.C.’s shoreline. Photo: Grace Van Helvoirt/Wilderness Association of B.C. Photo by Grace Van/Helvoirt/Wilderness To /PNG

Smith was speaking on one of the company’s 140-foot catamarans called Cascadia. He said there were 19 people on board, including 17 crew, an engineer, and a helicopter pilot.

In March 2020, when the pandemic hit, the company had just finished upgrading its three boats in preparation for a sold-out season of tours along the B.C. and Alaska coasts. It wasn’t clear whether they could safely operate so they made the decision to cancel the tours.

It was a crushing defeat, and one that Smith’s insurance company refused to cover. But instead of tying up the ships he collaborated with colleagues at the Small Ship Tour Operators Association to apply for funding from the federal government to use their expertise to remove derelict fishing gear and plastics from the shore.

The feds loved it but said there was no money so they turned to the B.C. government, which had made an election promise to clean up derelict fishing gear and plastics on B.C.’s coasts.

The B.C. government was on board and funded the seven-week cleanup, allowing Smith to keep working with some of his employees.

Long fishing lines, thousands of crab traps, dragger balls the size of basketballs, plastic bags, foam from derelict docks, and more than 10,000 water bottles. These are just some of the items the team dragged off beaches and rocky cliffs.

They expected to collect 20 to 30 tonnes of debris but ended up with 127 tonnes.

The operation was so successful the provincial government created the Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative Fund. As part of that initiative, the Small Ship Tour Operators Association, along with First Nations partners, this year are participating in a $3.5-million cleanup of B.C’s central coast.

The teams are just finishing up the second of two marine debris removal expeditions, each lasting 21 days, along 1,000 kilometres of remote shoreline around dozens of small islands.

“The scale of plastic use and improper disposal of fishing gear is frightening,” said Smith. “It is the issue of our time and if we don’t stop we won’t have wildlife in our oceans.”

Crews work to remove marine debris from B.C.’s coastline. Photo: Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C.
Crews work to remove marine debris from B.C.’s coastline. Photo: Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C. Photo by Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism As /PNG
Crews work to clean up marine debris on B.C. shores as part of a $3.5-million cleanup of B.C’s central coast. Photo: Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C.
Crews work to clean up marine debris on B.C. shores as part of a $3.5-million cleanup of B.C’s central coast. Photo: Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C. Photo by Photo: Simon Ager/Wilderness Tou /PNG

Markel, who was on his company’s 70-foot schooner Passing Cloud Saturday, is also in the Estavan Group, just south of where Smith and his crew are located.

Russell Markel, owner of Outer Shores Expeditions, has been helping during the pandemic to clean up marine debris from B.C.’s coastline. Photo: Oriana Smy/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C.
Russell Markel, owner of Outer Shores Expeditions, has been helping during the pandemic to clean up marine debris from B.C.’s coastline. Photo: Oriana Smy/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C. Photo by Oriana Smy/Wilderness Tourism As /PNG

“COVID has been devastating for us,” he said, adding that it will take years to recover. Next season the company will be honouring many of the tours that had to be cancelled so there won’t be much revenue.

He said the government’s funding has been a lifeline for many tour operators involved in the cleanup. It means they could hire their staff instead of losing them to another industry.

“The government grants have meant the difference between financially surviving and not surviving,” he said.

And like Smith, Markel said the experience has forever changed the way he views plastics.

“The sheer scope of what we are recovering is staggering. I am also a marine ecologist and so I was always aware of the environmental damage but this has been an eye-opener for me. People need to understand the scope of this crisis.”

Globally, it has been estimated that one garbage truck of plastic waste enters the ocean every minute, totalling eight million tonnes every year, according to the B.C. government.

Both Markel and Smith were overwhelmed by how well the tour operators and First Nations worked together on this project. And both say that even when the tour business starts up again, they will continue to be involved in marine cleanup projects.

“It really was a beautiful thing. I’m closer to my colleagues that I have ever been,” said Smith.

“We’ll go back to tourism,” said Markel. “But this has been the most incredible and inspiring industry-building effort and we will be part of more cleanups.”

This diagram from the Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C. shows the different types of marine debris collected from B.C.’s coastline. Photo: Jeff Reynolds.
This diagram from the Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C. shows the different types of marine debris collected from B.C.’s coastline. Photo: Jeff Reynolds.
A helicopter lifts massive bags of marine debris from B.C.’s shoreline. Photo: Jeff Reynolds/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C.
A helicopter lifts massive bags of marine debris from B.C.’s shoreline. Photo: Jeff Reynolds/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C. Photo by Jeff Reynolds/Wilderness Tourism /PNG
Members of the Small Ship Operators Association of B.C. are using their marine expertise during the pandemic and taking part in a $3.5-million cleanup of B.C’s central coast. Photo: Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C.
Members of the Small Ship Operators Association of B.C. are using their marine expertise during the pandemic and taking part in a $3.5-million cleanup of B.C’s central coast. Photo: Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C. Photo by Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism As /PNG
Crews work to remove marine debris from B.C.’s coastline. Photo: Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C.
Crews work to remove marine debris from B.C.’s coastline. Photo: Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism Association of B.C. Photo by Simon Ager/Wilderness Tourism As /PNG

ticrawford@postmedia.com

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