By Julia Pepler

When the founders of the Annual Fraser River Cleanup planned their first event at Gill Bar in 2007 it was out of necessity. Gill Bar had become a dumping ground for old washing machines, barrels full of unknown materials, mattresses, and more. This first cleanup brought in just over a dozen concerned citizens who wanted to lend a hand for the sake of the local ecosystem.

Gill Bar is a rocky section of shoreline on the Fraser River in Chilliwack. Every year the spring freshet (flooding due to melting snow and heavy rain) washes through the area and creates a spawning area for salmon. And so every year illegally dumped garbage and debris get carried into the river and out into the Salish Sea, spreading toxic chemicals and microplastics into sensitive marine ecosystems. Tanya Otero, the National Program Manager for the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup shared the importance of cleanups, big or small, with us, saying, 

“We know that the majority of shoreline litter originates inland, and once it enters the waterways it is more difficult to retrieve, causing potential harm to wildlife and ecosystems. Shoreline cleanups are a great way to get outside and enjoy nature, while being a steward of the environment. Whether a cleanup is done as an individual action, team-building with colleagues, or getting to know your community, the end results support healthy wildlife and waters, and pristine shorelines.”

Volunteers organize garbage into recycling, landfill, and wood compost at the 11th Annual Fraser River Cleanup.

The Annual Fraser River Cleanup in 2007 set out to clean up this visible problem, but it resulted in a much larger change. The years went on and attendance to the cleanup grew as more people became aware of the issue. Last year, the cleanup saw a record number of volunteers. More than 700 people of all ages arrived at Gill Bar on March 23, ready to put on gloves and get to work. And for the first year ever, the teams of dedicated volunteers collected less garbage than the year before. Though the 2018 total was still huge, weighing in at 6.5 tonnes, 2018 saw 11 tonnes collected! It was not for lack of trying. The record number of volunteers worked for 3 hours, tirelessly leaving no stone unturned. 

So why is it that these hundreds of volunteers found less garbage last year? We don’t know for sure but we have a theory. As the attendance grows for the Annual Cleanup, as it becomes a regular event for families, organizations, community groups, and folks in the Lower Mainland, the culture of communities living near Gill Bar has shifted. When you personally get involved in a cleanup, you spend time near the water, see wildlife interacting with the ecosystems, experience the gravity and time that is required to clean up dumped garbage, and you are more likely to raise your voice when you hear of people illegally dumping garbage. Over the past 13 years, communities in Chilliwack have become stewards of Gill Bar, feeling empowered to speak out when it is mistreated and threatened. 

At Swim Drink Fish we always reference Jacques Cousteau’s famous quote, “people protect what they love.” As the community has grown within this annual tradition, people have had the chance to connect with the Fraser River in a new way, and once you are connected to something, you are more likely to protect it. 

Cleanups across Canada create community, influence local culture, provide an opportunity for people to connect with water and with their neighbours, and help remove litter from shorelines and sensitive ecosystems. Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup (GCSC) provides extensive data resources that reveal the impact of these cleanups. In 2018 alone, Canadians removed 560,432 cigarette butts, 49,633 bottle caps, and 26,512 plastic bags from the shores of Canadian water bodies. This data helps highlight the importance of pollution reporting, water literacy, and recognizes the hard work of volunteers across the country. You can host your own cleanup on their website, or find one near you, so that you can become a part of the national movement to keep our waters clean. Make sure you track your data to take your impact further. On GCSC your data contributes to a wealth of information that is “shared with students, researchers, and government to find solutions to plastic pollution and improve the future for our waters.”

A volunteer shows collected batteries and metal pieces at the 2018 cleanup.

Our upcoming 13th Annual Fraser River Cleanup & Celebration will be an opportunity for hundreds of people to connect with the powerful Fraser River and protect its threatened ecosystem. We are looking forward to seeing the familiar faces of people who have attended the cleanup for many years, as well as the new faces of people who want to join in this special event. The event will take place on Saturday, March 28 from 10 am to 1 pm at Gill Bar. Learn more about the event here and we’ll see you out there, rain or shine!

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