Coastal debris cleanup offers hope and new lessons for tourism

November 26, 2020
A person standing next to coastal debris. Photo by Vanessa Johnson

There are few 2020 trends the COVID-smashed tourism sector will want endured.

But a hugely successful and collaborative marine debris cleanup along BC’s north coast could well be one of them.

Championed by eco-influencer and Royal Roads University Assoc. Faculty member Kathy MacRae, the Marine Debris Removal Initiative is a beacon for how sustainability, collaboration and environmental considerations will be essential to the sector moving forward.

The initiative became a rare upbeat story for the sector, attracting national media attention, exceeding it goals and becoming another exemplary example of how the lived experiences of faculty are part of an RRU education.

MacRae, who teaches in Royal Roads’ School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, used her relationship-building and advocacy skills to help secure $3.5 million for the pricey operation from the Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative Fund via the province’s Ministry of Environment & Climate Change Strategy.

Working with the provincial government, and as board member of the Wilderness Tourism Association of BC, MacRae helped secure financial footings for the project, allowing it to germinate from an idea to an initiative that is strengthening First Nations partnerships and keeping wilderness operators afloat as bookings and revenues vanished and costs persisted.

“It was not money-making for any operators,” says MacRae. “But it was a win-win-win — win. It covered their operating costs and wages for crews. Some of these operators have lost millions through insurance and refunds. They have to take on loans and deficits and the funding will be a vital to getting back to normal operations post-COVID as they’ve been able to retain skilled staff.”

Those other wins? MacRae says it was a win for the environment as marine debris poses threats to fish, seabirds and marine mammals. A win for government looking for effective climate change actions and ways to support pandemic-hit sectors. And a win for the First Nations that had marine debris removed from their traditional territories.   

Kevin Smith, owner of Maple Leaf Adventures, gets credit for the idea, and he and others in the WTABC, Small Ships Tour Operators Association and Commercial Bear Viewing Association, put together the mind-boggling logistics requiring skilled marine operators, tugs, a barge and a helicopter to collect waste along BC’s roughest outer coastline. But ideas languish without champions and funding.  

Cleaning up coastlines, reflecting on impact

In mid-August, more than 100 crew and guides from five BC ecotourism companies, combed over 1,000 km of coastal beaches along the Great Bear Rainforest, collecting 127 tonnes of marine waste — plastics, fishing gear, chucks of Styrofoam dock material — and almost doubling their collection target. A related in-shore clean-up done by members of Coastal First Nations communities employed another 75.

MacRae says she’ll be incorporating the learning opportunities from the project into her Environment and Justice classes at Royal Roads.

“It’s one I’m really proud of... and operators want it to be part of their regular season. It is really regenerative tourism. Some say sustainable, but that’s not what it is anymore. It is holding close what we love so much... understanding your impact on the communities you operate in and the environment around you."

The teachable lessons are about how collaboration — with First Nations and even with one’s competitors — and taking care of the environment you operate in is vital to one’s business.

“COVID is showing us to think outside of ourselves. It is giving us mental clarity, where we are thinking about the greater world and greater environment. It is making us stop and reflect that our actions really do impact ourselves, others, the environment, and communities. That’s what my class is about.”

Despite current challenges, she sees a great future for tourism.

“Tourism will always be a strong industry and especially in BC where it is a primary industry...It has not been understood just how big it is. If anyone was thinking of doing a tourism program, this is absolutely the right time.”

The way forward post-pandemic, as the marine debris initiative illustrates, requires skills beyond managing a balance sheet and executing great service; collaboration and environmental stewardship will be part of the overall experience.

A Royal Roads graduate herself, MacRae says “I am thankful for my Masters of Arts in Tourism and Management every day. I’m thankful for the confidence it gave me; thankful for the connections; and thankful for the skills it helped me build. It was one of the best life decisions I have ever made.”