Doing Whatever it Takes to Clean Newfoundland’s Harbours
By Tracy Howard
With its dramatic landscapes and majestic coastlines, Newfoundland is justifiably acclaimed as one of Canada’s most beautiful places. But under the surface of the harbours and bays that dot its shores lies a dirty secret: these waters have long been used as a dumping ground for all matter of materials.
Enter Shawn Bath — a Newfoundlander originally from the town of Twillingate and now living in Bay Roberts — working tirelessly to remove garbage from local waters through his Clean Harbours Initiative (CHI). As a sea urchin diver for 21 years, Bath was accustomed to swimming over tires, appliances, batteries, bottles, fishing gear and other debris dumped by both industry and individuals.
But a few years ago, while diving near the Indian Islands located off central Newfoundland, he came across a ghost net — an abandoned or lost fishing net — full of crabs, sea urchins, a few sea birds, two manta rays, and, most heartbreaking to Bath, a dead harp seal entangled at its centre.
Bath, a 49-year-old father of three and stepfather of two, determined from the net’s positioning that the seal had tried to pull it to the surface in order to breathe. “That was a heart-wrenching moment because I know how big a fear your body goes through when you think you’re going to drown,” Bath says.
In response, in 2018 Bath founded Clean Harbours Initiative with a three-part focus: cleaning Newfoundland’s beaches; diving to clean up harbours; and using boats to drag up ghost gear.
Bath says it was a “hard sell” both at home and to other Newfoundlanders. “I had to convince my family and friends and the province, I guess, that I’m going to give up work as a well-paid urchin harvester to go clean harbours, and I’m not going to have income for maybe a year or two. And we’re in a province where for hundreds of years a lot of trash was thrown overboard, and very few people realized the extent of the problem.” (A study by Memorial University’s Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research — CLEAR — which compiled data from 1962 to 2019 for Newfoundland and Labrador, found that 85 percent of its marine shoreline waste is plastic, and there’s an average density of more than 5,200 pieces of plastic in surface water per square kilometre.)
Diving into the mission
Bath started off diving alone with the old gear he’d used harvesting sea urchins, and his own car to drag the tires out of harbours. His initial investment was eight dollars of rope — eventually he bought a truck with his own funds.
“I’d jump in and tie on maybe 10 or 15 tires, then I’d swim back in, remove my diving gear, get aboard my truck and use it to haul the tires up over the side of the wharf,” Bath explains. “Then I’d get geared up again and get back in the water and do the same thing.”
To document his work, he had a friend take photos of him in the water and of the trash, which he’d post on Facebook. Bath now wears a GoPro camera while diving.
Like many Newfoundlanders, Bath’s life has been largely defined by water. Beyond providing him with a living — he started commercial fishing at age 14, when he would help out his parents before school and during summers — the ocean and diving have always captured his imagination. But as dedicated as Bath is to preserving the ocean now, he admits he’s an unlikely environmental crusader.
“I was one of those guys who had a bag of chips and would drive up the highway and throw it out the window,” Bath says. “But just because I was something in the past doesn’t mean I’ve got to remain that.”
CHI has grown, thanks in large part to local support. Although at the time of writing Bath wasn’t diving due to COVID-19 restrictions, he says normally they go out weekly or every other week with three divers working at a time as well as several people assisting on shore. He estimates that to date, they’ve hauled out 1,750 standard-size car tires and 40,000 pounds of ocean trash (tires included).
One of the largest donations to date resulted from a tragedy. The family of the late Lindsay Petten, a respected fisherman and diver from Port de Grave, donated his boat to Bath in February 2020. Petten died while diving two days before Christmas in 2019, and his son stunned Bath by gifting him Catch’a The Day, a vessel he had previously expressed interest in buying. “I almost broke down, I gave him a big hug,” Bath recalls. “At that point, we were getting $20 and $50 donations, and, all of a sudden, his family’s donating a $30,000 boat.”
Catch’a The Day was retrofitted to serve as a dive boat by Vails Fiberglass Inc. Bath says while he originally took it in for a few repairs, they did a complete retrofit for free, amounting to an $18,000 donation. Bath is also grateful to Sheldon Peddle, executive director of ACAP Humber Arm, a not-for-profit focused on marine issues in western Newfoundland, and Derek Bennett, the province’s environment minister, for helping fund the boat’s two motors.
The province’s Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture donated a second boat, which will be used to collect the trash gathered by divers. And while a few stores haven’t charged for supplies, he gives special mention to Avalon Industrial in Bay Roberts for frequently donating tools and equipment for the boats.
Additionally, Bath says he’s witnessed a change in attitudes. When cleaning up harbours now, he says it’s common for whole towns to come out to help dispose of the haul.
“It’s going to be difficult for anybody to be throwing trash in the water now without getting an earful from people,” Bath says.
Getting to the next level
Perhaps the largest assist has come from Sheryl Fink, whom Bath met through a Facebook group. Fink is director of Canadian wildlife campaigns for IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), and has spent much of her 23-year career with the organization working to end the East Coast commercial seal hunt. But with the commercial hunt disappearing, one of IFAW’s current priorities is protecting North Atlantic right whales, of which Fink advises there are only 360 left globally.
“Right whales are getting entangled in lobster and crab gear in particular, causing reduced reproduction rates and drowning,” Fink advises. “And all kinds of injury and trauma.”
With the obvious synergy between CHI’s cleanup work and IFAW’s mission to protect whales, Bath and Fink began talking about ways she could provide support. Fink, who’s based in Guelph, Ont., has since travelled to Newfoundland a few times to see the efforts in person, and through IFAW provided an initial small grant.
“I think Shawn’s doing a fantastic job,” Fink says. “I never would have thought I would get excited about cleaning tires out of the ocean, but every time I talk to him, I get excited about what he’s doing again.”
While Fink loves Bath’s passion and praises his success in getting local media attention and community support, she’s using her background in campaigns to assist with strategy and organization. “Shawn has very big dreams,” says Fink. “But strategy, planning, monitoring, evaluation and impact reporting are all very important components that weren’t being considered to the extent they perhaps need to be, in order to successfully apply for further funding.”
Fink was instrumental in helping secure $80,000 from Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) Zero Plastic Waste Initiative, which Bath has used toward a boat trailer, his own wages, equipment and a website Fink is helping him build.
Additionally, Fink has worked with Bath on marketing techniques and maintaining communication with donors, and she’s creating a report on marine plastic debris in the province and best practices on how to do shallow-water cleanup.
But the collaboration hasn’t been without controversy due to IFAW’s role in fighting the seal hunt. As IFAW’s name was attached to the federal funding, some provincial politicians tried to block it. Ultimately, they weren’t successful, and Bath received the funding this past January.
“Shawn and I are working together to show that even those who have historically been on opposite ‘sides’ of an issue can still come together for a greater good,” Fink says.
As the agreement with ECCC will end next March, Fink continues to look for other grants. She also encourages Bath to focus on capacity-building and other long-term goals to take CHI to the next level.
While Bath originally intended for Clean Harbours Initiative to be a non-profit, he recently received a certificate of incorporation in order to be eligible for grants available only to corporations.
Bath estimates he’s put $100,000 of his own money into this work, and while the ECCC funds have helped, he’d like to be able to pay the other divers.
“We’re trying to make this a commercial outfit because nobody can afford to volunteer their time on the scale this needs to be done, which is five days a week,” says Bath.
His fundraising efforts include selling ad space on his boats, making T-shirts and working tirelessly to raise awareness of what he’s doing and the need for it. Additionally, he’s raised over $13,000 through a GoFundMe campaign.
Bath has been assisted by his partner, Staunene Whelan, who in addition to having covered the household expenses while he was starting the initiative, raises funds on her CHI Sea Shoppe Facebook page selling jewellery she makes from sea glass and porcelain pieces from dive finds.
Highs and lows
Bath has received some impressive acclaim for his efforts. Last year he was awarded the Stan Hodgkiss Outdoorsperson of the Year award from the Canadian Wildlife Federation.
And an 88-minute documentary, Hell or Clean Water, directed by Cody Westman, depicts Bath’s mission. It will be available for streaming beginning April 29 as part of the 2021 Hot Docs Festival.
“You felt really good when you won awards, and when you got donations and stuff like boats was enough to make you cry,” Bath says. “But there’s times we struggled financially to do this and it almost cost me my relationship.”
Bath remains driven by what’s left to do. “Although we’ve had so much help, we still have less than 10 percent of the gear needed to grow this initiative to what it needs to become to stop the drowning of whales and to clean our ocean floors.”
His ultimate goal is to haul out 100,000 tires, 10,000 ghost nets and a million-plus pounds of trash with at least five crews and 10 boats working year round, as well as expand his efforts to other parts of North America.
“I just love the water, I love what I’m doing,” Bath explains. “I’ve gone so far, I’ve suffered so much in trying to get it off the ground, there’s no way I’d give it up now.”
To learn more, visit Clean Harbour Initiative’s Facebook page. CHI accepts donations through Interac e-Transfer and at its GoFundMe page.
Doing our part for the oceans
Most of us have heard about the dangers of plastic straws and other plastics that break down into microscopic particles polluting waters and harming the marine life that ingest them. But, beyond avoiding these products, what can we do? Some ideas:
• Shawn Bath, founder of Clean Harbours Initiative, says to refrain from flushing non-biodegradable items down the toilet. “Probably 50 percent of the plastic that pollutes beaches and oceans are syringes, tampon applicators, condoms and other stuff that doesn’t break down well,” says Bath.
• Bath would also like to see a ban on the use of rubber tires for bumpers on wharves because they often break off and end up on the ocean floor. “Every tire takes 60 to 80 years to break down and become microplastic,” Bath says. “They say every three to four mussels has 12 pieces of microplastic in them — and most Newfoundlanders love to eat local mussels.”
• He reminds people when boating or fishing to bring back all their trash.
• Pick up litter and garbage near beaches.
• Eat sustainable seafood. According to a 2020 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 34 percent of the world’s fisheries are overfished.