For 20 years, Shawn Bath dove for sea urchins, earning a living off the sea the same way he did as a commercial fisherman before the cod moratorium. While searching out the spiny edibles on the sea bottom, he often saw old tires, trash and lost or tossed fishing gear. It bothered him, but he always figured that, sooner or later, the government would initiate a clean-up effort, the same way government employees clean up garbage on dry land.
After two decades of waiting, he realized nobody was going to clean up the ocean trash and he couldn’t ignore it anymore. In 2018, no longer commercially diving for sea urchins and with some time on his hands, Shawn began diving for something different.
“I spent a lifetime making money off the ocean or in the ocean, and my favourite place to be is in the water,” he says. “After all these years of seeing the stuff, and seeing nobody doing nothing about it, I guess it just got to me. Somebody’s got to do it, and there’s nobody around that got any more motivation or reason to do it than I do. And if I don’t do it… well then, nobody’s going to do it.”
That initial act turned into a regular thing, and Shawn soon formed the Clean Harbours Initiative, with the goal of removing 100,000 tires and tons of garbage from harbour bottoms around the island. Though he’s originally from Twillingate, Shawn did his first clean-up in his current hometown of Bay Roberts.
“When I started doing it, I felt ridiculous,” he says. “Here was me from Twillingate over in Bay Roberts cleaning up the mess that came off some local fish plant and some local longliners and stuff. Down here in water, chin in water, cutting all this stuff off, working like a dog, free labour, not getting’ paid for nothin’, just trying to clean it up.”
That first clean-up was to remove a mass of plastic and rope that had gathered around the wharf. Not needing his full scuba kit, he went into the water in just his dry suit and with a large steak knife. After hours of hacking away at ropes and plastic, he freed it from the wharf. It weighed, Shawn estimates, about 1,000 pounds, so he enlisted the help of a local fishplant forklift operator to get the pile onto the wharf.
A half-ton of garbage on the wharf is a photo-worthy moment, and Shawn used those photos to get people to care about cleaning up the bays. He’s been posting photos and videos from his various clean-ups on Facebook under his own profile and on the Clean Harbours Initiative page (which has more than 1,300 followers as of press time).
People seem to think that because you can’t see it, dumping things in the ocean is acceptable, says Shawn, who has found quite a few batteries around wharves that he figures people are throwing overboard when they replace their boat battery. The batteries can be brought to the surface relatively easily in the hands of a diver, but tires require a different approach.
One method involves coiling a rope on the wharf, grabbing one end, diving and threading the rope through several tires. At the last tire of the string, he ties a knot. Then, back on land, he attaches the other end of the rope to his truck and slowly hauls the tires out of the water. It’s a time consuming process with only one person. And there’s a lot of garbage underwater.
He could be doing this full time - there’s definitely enough work for it to be a full-time job, he figures - but his clean-up efforts aren’t generating an income. So Shawn has set up a Go Fund Me page to raise money to pay for Clean Harbours Initiative. As of press time, he’s raised $3,394 of his $25,000 goal.
Like other social-good projects, the work is worthy and has a benefit to everyone - cleaner oceans mean healthier oceans - but there isn’t an obvious way to monetize it. Towns don’t want to pay for harbour clean-ups. They’re even reluctant to waive dump fees for his trash drop-offs. Some towns, including Twillingate, have contributed with hauling trash or providing money for supplies.
This clean-up effort is the sort of thing Shawn figures would make a great government program, and he’s been working with various government branches to raise awareness and funding. He’s had some success with government help in starting educational programs, but is still working on getting funding for equipment and expenses. With more funds, he’d be able to remove more trash, as well as ghost nets and other abandoned fishing gear, from the water.
The problem of ghost nets goes beyond trash. Sitting at the bottom of the ocean, unattached to anything, these nets are still catching groundfish, flatfish, lobsters and even seals. Removing these ghost nets would go a long way to improving the marine ecosystem, and it could be done by dragging the ocean with modified fishing boats, says Shawn.
“My goal is to bring enough attention to this problem so we can get government contracts on the go for the dive teams that are in the province, and for anybody else that wants to get involved,” says Shawn.
Check out Shawn’s work on the Clean Harbours Initiative Facebook page. If you want to support his efforts, head to “Stop the Forever Fishing” on GoFundMe.com.