Eradicating Ocean Pollution

Prime Minister Trudeau wants to move open-net pen fish farms out of the ocean because they cause pollution and spread viruses.

Moving from the ocean to LAND-BASED fish farms is a proactive decision, but there is so much more that needs to be done.

White Rock is a seaside community on the Pacific ocean in the most southern part of BC on the Canada / US border. It’s a town, attached to a larger growing city, Surrey, both of which are struggling for their identities. White Rock is growing very fast with tall condos racing up on almost every commercial city block. Some question whether city infrastructure like water and sewers will be able to manage the overwhelming growth.

Budgets are already stretched, so introducing an issue about ocean pollution into the mix is a serious challenge. There is only so much time in the day and dollars in the coffer.

Ocean pollution takes precedence however and isn’t something we should ever sweep under the rug.

White Rock has the same ocean challenges as everyone else. For decades Canadian cities have dumped raw sewage into the Pacific! Today, plastic in the ocean is a central player, and it’s serious, but so too are mercury, PCBs and other dioxins.

White Rock is a beautiful seaside town with large, expansive beaches, but most notable is that it sits adjacent to a number of bird sanctuaries. The word “sanctuary” literally means – “a place of refuge and safety.” White Rock beaches are protected wildlife areas.

White Rock is also a well-known Birding Spot, where, from the comfort of the pier you can see a very long list of feathered creatures like; Bonaparte’s Gulls, Red-Necked, Horned and Western Grebes, Surf and White-Winged Scoters, Common Pacific and Red-Throated Loons, Brandt’s Cormorants, Long-Tailed Ducks, Canada Geese, Bald Eagles, Black Turnstones and many more species.

You can also see Seals and Sea Lions. The water is alive with crabs, anchovies, flounder, sole, salmon, sand sharks and occasionally also whales like Greys, Humpbacks, and Orcas.

White Rock beaches are protected and delicate, but for the most part we forget how fragile the area is because it gets such heavy use by animals and humans alike.

We do all kinds of things at the beaches in White Rock, including wading, swimming, paddle-boarding, parasailing, kayaking, sailing, canoeing, and boating in general. White Rock beaches are active summer and winter. We even do a Polar Bear Swim in January.

The challenges at White Rock beaches are similar to issues at other Canadian seaside communities, so my goal here isn’t to single out our community.

One of the biggest issues regarding pollution on Canada’s coasts is that many communities for decades have dumped raw sewage and all kinds of contaminants into the ocean because most don’t have filtration plants, or if they do, the plants are inadequate.

The federal government recently imposed a ban stating that major cites (White Rock is NOT a major city) had to start filtering sewage by 2020, which is a major step in the right direction. Sewage is only one problem however, and as you can see below, not everyone shares the same respect for our oceans.

In February of 2020 I was walking along the White Rock beach near my home when I noticed a “sheen” on the water, and circling it was a six-foot wide oily looking rainbow ring. I estimated the sheen to be about the size of a football field emanating from the overflow pipe at the foot of Oxford Street.

It was growing larger very rapidly, and within an hour was at least twice the size. The creek/storm water overflow pipe extended into the ocean a short distance, maybe forty feet or so. Similar to many BC communities, the storm water system is attached to White Rock’s sewer system, and during periods of heavy rainfall, common in our area, anything in sewage pipes or storm sewers can be dumped directly into the ocean. At first I thought the sheen looked like gasoline, but it smelled more like transmission fluid, or some type of cleaner or paint thinner. It was also very thin and disappeared even though it coated my finger. It smelled strong, but I couldn’t see anything on my hand.

It’s not the first time a mysterious contaminant flooded our White Rock beaches. Something similar is reported more often than one would think, and each time it is dismissed as non-threatening and a one-time occurrence, which today isn’t a reasonable explanation.  

Ignoring stuff like this and calling it “NO CAUSE FOR CONCERN” is no longer acceptable.

I care personally because it’s my beach, and someone is polluting the fish and wildlife in our area.

I care professionally because I’m a business development and communications analyst who works in the fisheries and seafood industry, and one of my responsibilities over the last decade has been about finding solutions to help keep our oceans clean and our fish species safe.

The federal government recently mandated that all open-net pen fish farms on the BC coast be moved inland where they won’t be able to continue to pollute our oceans, which is a great step forward, but incidents like the one that just repeated itself at the White Rock beach are concerning.

The birds in the area floated completely on the outer edge of the “sheen”. Whatever the contaminant was, even the birds knew it was fowl. I suspect they knew because it smelled so strong.

I’m not a scientist, or biologist, and I’m not suggesting that “this” sheen directly killed fish or birds, but about six weeks before this particular contamination, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of anchovies washed up dead on our beaches overnight. It makes me wonder how often contaminants get dumped in our ocean–maybe even late at night while we are all sleeping?

On December 26 2019, hundreds of thousands of northern anchovies washed ashore dead onto White Rock’s beaches.

I witnessed the sheen on February 5, 2020.

I agree that one isolated incident could be an accident and probably doesn’t cause much harm to wildlife in our big ocean, but what if it occurs once a night, or every week, or even once a month? What happens collectively, and is anyone monitoring it adequately?

By the sounds of it, not likely.

The reason for the kill-off offered by biologists is that the fish we’re simply too crammed together and starved themselves of oxygen and died. It’s plausible, but the scientific evidence to support what is admittedly only a theory, and that at the best of times has less than fifty percent chance of being right, is terribly skewed.

Yes, the fish could have and probably did die from hypoxia, lack of oxygen, but without context and not knowing why the fish were so susceptible is a critical part of the puzzle that was never addressed.

The worn argument by biologists goes like this;

In 2011 and a few documented times since, millions of anchovies swam into a protected U.S. marina at such high density that the amount of oxygen in the weather couldn’t support them, and they died in massive numbers. The difference between Marina del Ray in California then, and White Rock BC today is that White Rock is not a protected marina. It isn’t even a cove. It’s a very wide bay beach of about five kilometers that ramps quickly from about forty feet depth to about eight feet along the entire beach. The tide’s fluctuation is about seven feet on average. Nothing extraordinary about this type of gently-sloping seafloor. It’s mostly a calm, lapping-wave style of beach, and mostly silt and sand. There is absolutely nothing in this area to trap fish like one would experience in a marina. White Rock fish can simply swim in three unencumbered directions to find oxygen.

According to Wikipedia ” Fish kills may result from a variety of causes. Of known causes, fish kills are most frequently caused by pollution from agricultural runoff or biotoxins.

I’m not arguing that the anchovies didn’t die of oxygen depletion, but I am questioning why the fish were so susceptible to oxygen depletion that they died. Healthy fish can overcome fluctuations in temperature, or the stress of being hunted by predators, but they CANNOT survive the added stress of also being poisoned. It’s common sense that was never addressed by local media. The amount of fish that died would fill tractor trailers. It was a tragic ecological event that through brilliant PR messaging became a question of whether the water was safe for swimmers in a few days for the annual New Year Polar Plunge!

Contaminated water was quickly ruled out.

The polar bear plunge went ahead.

The only reason I saw the “SHEEN” on the water a few weeks later was because the ocean was calm, with only gently lapping waves. If there would have been any type of wave action, the sheen would have simply floated back to shore and been driven into the sand with each wave. If the contaminant was dumped into the storm system late at night, no one would have witnessed it. I just happened to be at the right place at the appropriate time.

I wonder now how many spills I’ve missed.

Fish in our oceans have been contaminated with mercury , arsenic, PCBs, and other dioxins for decades.

Granted, some of it is naturally occurring, but poison like this usually comes from manufacturing. If every storm water overflow pipe that dumps into the ocean trickles poison like this, imagine the collective flow and damage. There are four pipes alone in this one stretch of White Rock beach.

Everyone needs to pitch in to manage what is now recognized as a crisis for our oceans, which means the province and municipal governments also have a responsibility.

We also need to define responsibility even further at the citizen level and educate those who live along shorelines to feel an obligation to protect our oceans and waterways.

If someone spewed smoke in the air everyone in your neighborhood would be up in arms. When it happens in our oceans though, citizens are for the most part complacent, and apathetic, like it’s not their problem.

We have to quit looking the other way.

Maurice Cardinal has been a fisheries marketing and communications advisor and writer in British Columbia for almost a decade and has worked with leading organisations, NGOs, and governments in Canada and abroad.