Garbage Sightings – West Coast Haida Gwaii

MERS Directors Jared Towers and Christie McMillan recently returned from the remote Langara Lightstation on Langara Island, part of Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), and the most northwestern point in British Columbia. They were up there for a month, conducting a whale survey for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Langara lightstation from the air
Langara lightstation from the air

When the weather was not ideal for whale-spotting, Jared and Christie took the opportunity to explore the beaches and forests of Langara Island. Sadly, they found that, despite the remote and isolated location of this island, evidence of how humans impact the environment was everywhere. Plastic water bottles, fishing floats and nets, styrofoam, and many other types of garbage littered the high tide lines of these remote beaches. A lot of this garbage had western Pacific and pelagic origins; many of the fishing floats had Japanese characters etched on them. Certain types of garbage, including plastics, can remain in the ocean for extremely long periods of time. They move throughout the North Pacific on ocean currents, eventually washing ashore on beaches, and then sometimes re-floating again at high tide. Due to the nature of these ocean currents, it is estimated that in two to three years, debris from the March 10 tsunami in Japan may start washing up on Langara’s beaches.

An assortment of fishing floats washed up on Langara Island
An assortment of fishing floats washed up on Langara Island

Marine debris, such as plastic products and old fishing gear, can be very dangerous to marine life. Discarded fishing gear can entangle whales, birds, fish, and other marine animals. Balloons, plastic bags, and other plastic debris can be mistaken for food by marine life, and can be fatal if ingested. And because plastics are so slow to break down, they can remain in the environment for centuries after they are disposed of, continuing to cause a threat to marine wildlife throughout this time. For further information about the dangers of plastics to marine life, click here.

A fishing net washed up on one of Langara's remote beaches
A fishing net washed up on one of Langara's remote beaches

Plastics and other marine debris are scary stuff, but researchers are learning more about which materials pose the highest risk to marine life and are making suggestions about ways to decrease the incidence of serious entanglements in marine debris. For example, a study carried out by researchers from Oregon State University collected information on the types of debris entangling Steller sea lions in the Pacific Northwest, and suggested that many of these entanglements could be prevented through relatively minor changes to the materials used in the fishing and packaging industries.

fishing floats and line
A tangled pile of fishing floats and line on one of the Langara beaches

You can also do your part to help reduce the amount of debris in the water. The best way to do this is to make daily choices that reduce the amount of plastic water bottles, plastic bags, and other plastic packaging that you purchase and consume. Participating in events that help remove garbage that has already been discarded in the oceans, such as a Great Canadian Shoreline Clean-up can also make a difference to the marine environment and marine life.

Water bottles
Drinking water out of reusable bottles, instead of these disposable plastic bottles, can cut down on the amount of marine debris

If you have any questions about marine debris, or about what you can do to help, please contact the Marine Education and Research Society at

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