Ocean Warriors pull trash from seashores

Amid the solitude of pandemic-era beach walks, Angela Riley found not just solace, but a mission that became a province-wide movement.

In 2020, Riley was on one of her daily walks on the beach near her home in Eastern Passage when the idea hit her. She noticed the same kind of garbage washing ashore and she resolved to clean up her coastal community — and beyond.

“As someone that comes from a fisher family and grew up [by the ocean] … I decided that I was going to try to make a difference,” she says.

Riley first teamed up with her family to get rid of garbage along Nova Scotia’s shores; in the process, they wanted to create awareness of the massive amount of plastic waste choking the oceans. The initiative quickly grew to involve the broader community.

Since then, Scotian Shores, the organization that was born from Riley’s brainstorm, has orchestrated countless group cleanups during which waves of volunteers — otherwise known as Ocean Warriors — gather to remove debris from the shorelines. To date, they have picked up over one million pounds of garbage.

On its Facebook page, Scotian Shores posts when and where the events are held and provides volunteers with all the necessary supplies for cleanups.

“People can just show up, clean, and walk away feeling like they made quite a difference,” Riley says.

And that’s exactly what happened with volunteer Alison Maher, who has to drive at least an hour to any seaside cleanup effort. The 57-year-old author and retired farmer lives in New Germany, where she has been pulling garbage out of ditches for more than 30 years.

“I read about a beach cleanup three or four years ago, and so I went. I was inspired by the community of like-minded people I encountered, so I have been going ever since.” She’s participated in cleanups from Baccaro Point in Barrington to Brier Island in Digby and always takes the least pleasant job: sorting the trash that has been pulled from the water.

“When you’re on the side of the angels, anything is easy work,” she says. “It would be easy to get disheartened or overwhelmed, but we focus on the fact we are making a difference. We can see it.”

Her most “interesting” experience came during a cleanup at the tiny seaside community of Morden, Kings County. She grabbed a piece of metal peeking through the sand that she thought looked remarkable, like an antenna for a car radio. It turns out it was exactly that, and with a little more exploration, she determined it was still attached to a car.

“I could put my hand through what was once the windshield and grab the steering wheel. I was shocked.”

The shock turned to horror when a local resident confirmed the car was just one of 30 that had been placed on the beach and covered with sand years ago in an attempt to create a shoreline buttress against erosion.

“We know better than that today. We need to continue to do better.”

Volunteer Kristen Hawboldt, who plans and runs cleanups in Yarmouth County, has taken things one step further: she collects data as well as garbage. She got involved by attending a cleanup at Port Maitland Beach in August 2021.

In March 2022, Hawboldt saw Riley had posted on the Scotian Shores Facebook page that she was looking for someone with experience in using spreadsheet programs. “I began going to cleanups, initially to clean, but then began helping more and more on the data and admin side of things. I haven’t stopped since March 2022,” she says.

“I have collected over 50,000 lobster trap tags,” Hawboldt says. “That data shows us a lot about where debris collects, and we can extrapolate some about how far some of the debris travels.”

In Yarmouth, about 20 per cent of the lobster tags that wash up are from Maine and other areas of the U.S., Hawboldt says.

During large group cleanups, Hawboldt weighs and categorizes the haul. “We do this so we can report amounts and weights of things so we can also make an educated guess of just how much money was spent on the debris we are removing.”

Riley says their research shows that the main areas where garbage builds up are in the Halifax Harbour, because of its high volume of traffic, and in Southwest Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy, due to the high tides and the Gulf of Maine’s ocean current.

“This brings up a lot of garbage from Maine and New York and sometimes even as far as Africa.”

Commercial lobster fishing along the Eastern Seaboard is another large contributor to garbage in the Bay of Fundy, Riley adds. This debris is known as “ghost gear,” which could be anything from rope to lobster traps and bands.

Not only does the Scotian Shores team clean up beach debris across the province, but they also repurpose the materials they’ve collected into products such as rope bowls, trivets and coasters. All proceeds from these sales go toward funding more cleanup efforts.

But inflation makes it hard to keep your head above water.

“Gas has become a big cost. Because boats require gas, getting our staff to the events requires gas and the cost just skyrocketed,” Riley says.

Scotian Shores sells their products online but also at local farmers’ markets across the province such as the Alderney Landing Farmers’ Market in Dartmouth and Kentville Farmers’ Market in the Annapolis Valley.

How to get involved

Scotian Shores welcomes any new volunteers into its ranks.

“It’s a lot of word of mouth,” Riley says. Social media has also been helpful in recruiting new Ocean Warriors.

Prospective volunteers receive information to make sure they are prepared. Among the recommendations are wearing appropriate clothing and bringing snacks, since clean- ups can range anywhere from two hours to a full day.

Before giving out equipment, Scotian Shores also provides a safety briefing when volunteers arrive.

However, it doesn’t have to be a big commitment for them.

“If we’re at a regular beach and some people come for 10 minutes, that’s enough. And I’m OK with that. I always say every bit counts,” Riley says.

Riley says team leads are often in charge of disposing of the garbage and of packing up at the end of the cleanups. Scotian Shores will later post on social media about how many pounds of trash they were able to gather, along with photos from the day.

If you feel inspired to start your own cleanup, here’s Hawboldt’s advice: “Pick a shoreline, make sure you are allowed to go there, figure out the local rules for disposing of shoreline or roadside trash, gather supplies and go for it. Also, definitely check the tides before setting out.”

Riley says she never expected Scotian Shores to become as big as it has, but “I’m learning that it actually needs to be bigger than it is.”

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