North Islanders rely on teamwork for estuary cleanup

Mike Youds, September 9, 2020

From left, Roger Dunlop, Uu-a-tluk biologist, Adrian O'Connor of Reel Obsession Sport Fishing and Shawn McCarrick, operations manager with the Village of Zeballos, take part in a community cleanup of Zeballos River estuary. (NSWS/ Karenn Bailey photo) 

Zeballos, BC — 

The Zeballos River estuary is cleaner than it has been for most of a century after collaboration between Ehatis and Zeballos residents with help from visiting volunteers.

“I think we got 90 per cent of the anthropocene (man-made) junk out of the estuary,” said Karenn Bailey, stewardship co-ordinator with Nootka Sound Watershed Society (NSWS). “That’s amazing.”

Equally impressive, they accomplished most of the cleanup in just one day, Aug. 25, relying on as many hands as they could muster in a town with a population of about 100 — the smallest municipality in B.C. — 24 volunteers in all.

“Lots of work, lots of help, lots of good vibes from everybody,” said Justin Janisse, the Zeballos village councillor who led the initiative.

On the other side of the estuary, Ehatis youth were ahead of them, having cleaned up the foreshore a few days earlier along what is known simply as “the beach.”

“It felt good to get it all cleaned up and safer because young kids play down there,” said Jolynn Hanson, child and youth co-ordinator for Ehattesaht/Chinehkint First Nation.

Kyle Harry started the cleanup initiative on the Ehatis side, she said.

“We had a few summer students and they wanted some work, so I put them to work on the beach,” Hanson said.

The youths are part of an after-school program that includes a variety of recreational activities and volunteer tasks. Shawna John, 15, and Aliya Mack, 14, pitched in, helping Hanson and Harry haul bicycles, clothes, chairs and other discarded materials from the shore. They also collected sharp objects hazardous to tender feet. Hanson recalls playing on the same beach as a child and the area is still used by village children.

Young salmon and spawners also depend on the estuary, a designated wetland reserve that supports coho and chinook as well as small populations of steelhead and cutthroat trout. For roughly 80 per cent of fish, mammal and bird species, estuaries are thriving oases of life.

Starting with a gold rush in the late 1930s, Zeballos briefly became a mining boom town. After the Second World War, logging eclipsed mining and remains an important employer in the area. A log dump is still in use on the inlet not far from the main estuary.

“There hasn’t been a cleanup before,” Bailey said. “That’s why there’s so much industrial waste.”

Wildlife viewing is a valued part of life in the community, Bailey said. An estuary viewing platform in the centre of town, estuary park and nature trail provide public access. Tourism and recreational fishing have increased over the years.

Zeballos River braids where it meets the sea, so four waterways were involved in the effort on the municipal side of the estuary, Bailey said. They hauled tires, axles, containers, even a transmission from the river mud.

Funded only by grants and donations, NSWS is a diverse group of area residents — DFO employees, First Nations representatives, local elected officials, biologists, industry representatives, commercial fishermen, anglers and educators — that called in extra help for the job. Bailey noted there are only a couple thousand residents in the area between Yuquot and Rugged Point, which is located south of Kyuquot. Smaller communities sometimes need a hand to get jobs done.

“There are only 2,000 people to do the work, so we need to draw on people from other communities,” she said.

Despite their small size population-wise, their commitment to salmon is big, Bailey said.

Volunteers from Campbell River drove over to join those from Zeballos and other west coast communities. They followed strict health and safety protocols, respecting pandemic safeguards.

“It worked out really well,” Bailey said. “There was a safety plan and a COVID plan and those tactical teams were very well-defined before we went in. We had different tactical teams and I was going between all of them to keep everyone in special bubbles.”

Janisse said the plan is to make the community cleanup an annual event.

“It was just great to get everybody connected and working on the same page,” he said.

 “All of us came together for the benefit of salmon and the community,” Bailey added. “It was a good beginning and I think the long-term relationship with Ehattesaht and the Village of Zeballos will be strengthened.”