Amount of debris astonishing: aquarium head

  • Jun. 27, 2012 12:00 p.m.

The president and chief executive of the Vancouver Aquarium says he was astonished at how much debris, believed to be related to the Japanese tsunami, he found in Gwaii Haanas during a recent visit. Dr. John Nightingale travelled to Haida Gwaii for 11 days earlier this month, along with a group of interested aquarium supporters. The Vancouver Aquarium organizes trip to an interesting marine area every year, and past destinations have included Antarctic, the Arctic and the Galapagos Islands, as well as Haida Gwaii. Dr. Nightingale said these trips help people shift their perspectives and bring new context to marine issues. This year’s journey started in Masset and explored the communities of the islands for two days, before the group boarded the Island Roamer at Moresby Camp for nine days of sailing through Gwaii Haanas. The group was not expecting tsunami debris to be the focus of the trip that it turned out to be, Dr. Nightingale said. “We were aware of the debris issue but I hadn’t put two and two together,” he said. “It was just amazing… I didn’t know foam came in so many different colours.” The aquarium founded and manages the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, a volunteer effort that takes place every September. At Bowles Beach on Kunghit Island, the group did an impromptu shoreline cleanup, gathering fishing floats, plastic bottles and chunks of styrofoam ranging from the size of a hand to the size of a desk. Dr. Nightingale said he has visited this beach before and has never seen anything like the amount of debris he saw on this trip, both on the beach and floating in the water. “We were astonished,” he said. “Basically, we took away two big zodiacs full.” The group took the garbage to the Parks Canada station on Ellen Island, keeping a few pieces to bring back to Vancouver for analysis. That analysis is not yet complete, but Dr. Nightingale said he has learned that the dense foam pieces found in various shades of yellow, tan and other colours are likely insulation from Japanese houses. The situation is of great concern, he said, especially given that the bulk of the debris is still out in the Pacific. The aquarium is exploring how the material will affect marine animals. Humpback whales, for example, feed by taking in mouthfuls of small fish near the surface of the ocean. If there are chunks of foam at the surface, they will eat that too, he said. Dr. Nightingale said he has asked the aquarium’s veterinarians whether the foam would stay in the whales’ stomachs or go through their digestive system, but no one has been able to answer the question yet. Meanwhile, the 13 people who travelled with Dr. Nightingale on this year’s expedition are still talking about the debris they found on Haida Gwaii. “We were at an aquarium function last night and it was a hot topic of conversation,” he said.

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