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AhGyk Son (Harwood Island) Beach Cleanup

March 23, 2010

Although it was very short notice, we managed to get 20 volunteers over to AhGyk Son (the traditional Tla’Amin name for Harwood Island) last week to help clean up some of the island’s shoreline.

AhGyk Son, as it will soon be legally known under the BC geographical naming system,  is the largest undeveloped island left in the Salish Sea (Georgia Straight) and contains many intertidal fish traps, clam gardens and other archaeological sites.  The intertidal areas fronting sand bluffs and spits often contain ancient cultural features and are usually very productive shellfish areas.  It was once a thriving area for herring spawn also but the degradation of the eel grass and kelp beds from pulp mill effluent have all but wiped out the population.

The southeast side of AhGyk Son (where the cleanup efforts were concentrated) is a Coastal Sand Dune Ecosystem which is one of the “ecosystems at risk” in BC because of its rarity and because most only occupy a few hectares each.  These dune environments create unique habitats for plants like the beach pea, coastal strawberry, and perennial grasses like dune wildrye and dune bluegrass.  Plant species at risk found only in dune areas include black knotweed and yellow sand verbena.


Although the island is uninhabited, its beaches are covered with (mostly plastic) trash.  The vast majority of garbage we pulled off was expanded polystyrene foam, more commonly referred to by its Dow Chemical trademark name, Styrofoam.

Polystyrene is composed of the chemicals benzene and styrene.  Benzene is a known carcinogen, and styrene is a suspected neurotoxin currently under review by the EPA to be formally classified as a human carcinogen.  Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is produced by melting polystyrene and dispersing gas into it, thus creating innumerable channels and bubbles in the material. This makes it a good insulator for hot beverages and food (although there is growing concern that styrene leaches into food and liquids when heated in EPS food service-ware products), and gives it a texture that is easy to handle. It also makes it float turning it into a particularly nasty form of buoyant plastic that breaks apart effortlessly and poses a choking hazard for wildlife, both on land and in the water.

In just a couple of afternoons, a small group of 20 volunteers was able to remove more than 1.5MT of garbage including 1459 pieces of EPS from a 1km stretch of beach.  Unfortunately, storms had also washed ashore a large amount of driftwood that had obscured a lot of the garbage and broke apart much of the EPS, reducing it into small balls that are rapidly making up much of the ‘sand‘ on the beach.  In areas near the top of the beach, this EPS ‘sand’ is more than 20cm deep already.

There is also a huge industrial iron dock that broke away from somewhere and washed ashore. The hulking dock is now so rusted that it is impossible to identify where it may have originated (and therefore, who is responsible for its removal) so it sits eroding at the top of a clam bed and continues to be battered apart by crashing driftwood. The two outer chambers have already been broken apart by the driftwood and spilled their Styrofoam centres, but the middle chamber is still full.  Soon, the middle chamber will be cracked open and the high-density foam inside will spill out, further polluting the uninhabited island’s beaches.

For more pictures, videos and a complete list of the garbage removed from AhGyk Son, please visit our Facebook page.

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