Listed by National Geographic as one of the best trips to take in 2015, Haida Gwaii is a land of endless shorelines, misty forests, abundant marine life and a rich cultural history. When an invitation to join the Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN) on a trip to this majestical island came up, I was thrilled to accept the offer.

The purpose of the trip was to learn how much debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami has washed up on the shores of Haida Gwaii. On previous cleanups on Vancouver Island, I have been overwhelmed by the volume of debris and the difficulty of cleanups on remote beaches, so I was eager to learn about the situation here.

From my first glimpse from the plane window, the natural beauty of Haida Gwaii did not disappoint. We saw sea lions playing, locals fishing for halibut and the sun sparkling on the water. What a place! We ate delicious local seafood, learned about Haida culture and enjoyed the relaxed pace of island life.

Shoreline Cleanups at Haida Gwaii

Breathtaking coastlines surround Haida Gwaii.

I travelled with Hanako Yokota from JEAN and members of the Haida Gwaii Tsunami Debris Management Program. We walked in the pouring rain along the sandy beach at Naikoon Provincial Park. We flew by helicopter along the remote west coast of the island, landing on beaches that are completely inaccessible for the majority of the year. Everywhere we went, we saw the same thing – marine debris. While we saw some beaches that have been cleaned as part of coordinated efforts with the Haida Gwaii Tsunami Debris Management Program, most beaches had piles of manmade items washed in from the ocean.

We saw hundreds of Japanese items which likely originated from the tsunami. We found buoys with painted symbols depicting a fishing family’s name, property markers from disaster stricken cities and household items such as shoes, combs and detergent bottles. The magnitude of the disaster was represented by the sheer volume of Japanese debris. As we walked, we shared the pain and the loss of the people of Japan.

Marine debris cleanup

Kate holds up a property marker from a Japanese city affected by the tsunami.

But we didn’t just find tsunami debris. We found disposable cutlery, fishing nets, shampoo bottles, rope, plastic water bottles, tires and shoes from all over the globe. On these remote beaches at the edge of the world, we saw the impact of plastic pollution and single use items. I can’t think of a worse place for our unwanted and unnecessary items to wash up than on the beautiful shores of Haida Gwaii. My heart breaks when I see never ending beaches swallowed up by everyday single use plastics.

Vancouver Aquarium Shoreline Cleanup

Naikoon Park beach, remote yet awash in marine debris.

While we can’t prevent debris from natural disasters, we can prevent everyday litter from ending up in the ocean. Even if we can’t see it, our garbage is having an impact, from entangling marine mammals to ending up the stomachs of the fish we eat.

You have the power to protect our wild and pristine places. Join us anywhere land meets water and make your action count. Register today for Vancouver Aquarium and WWF’s Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, presented by Loblaw Companies Limited at

Kate Le Souef, manager of Vancouver Aquarium and WWF’s Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, has been working on tsunami debris cleanups along the west coast of Vancouver Island. 

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4 Responses

    • Vancouver Aquarium

      Hi Marni,

      Most of the debris was swept away during and immediately following the earthquake and tsunami, which was several days before the nuclear reactor plant leak. Much of it was from areas far from the nuclear reactor. Also, due to the length of time and conditions that the debris will have faced as it crossed the Pacific, it is expected that some, if not all, of the contamination will have dispersed. Japanese boats washed out to sea by the tsunami have been tested for radioactivity and the results came back normal. You can learn more about tsunami debris on our coastline on our FAQ page:

  1. jan vozenilek


    Disheartening to see this. Thank you for the great article.

    What I would have loved to see the title of this story read is: Haida Gwaii Awash With Plastic Pollution.

    Calling it what it is, is the only way we can move forward and address the reality of what it actually is. It’s pollution. It’s garbage.

    The term “marine debris’ was conveniently created and continues to be used, so that we don’t actually talk about the real issues.

    Marine debris should refer to natural items found in the ocean. Sticks, logs, pumice stones….

    It really is sad to see how close to home this is hitting. Our team’s experience on Midway Atoll was devastating to say the least. But setting it in our own back yards is likely what will be needed for all of us collectively to do something about it.

    Thank you

    Jan Vozenilek

    • Kate Le Souef

      Hi Jan, Thank you for your comments, you make a great point. Marine debris has become an accepted term, but it’s not very descriptive. Most of the manmade items we find on remote beaches are plastic and I agree that we need to spread that message much more widely. On another note, the term ‘tsunami debris’ has also become an accepted term in North America but it can be difficult for tsunami survivors to hear because some of the items washed away were their personal items. ‘Debris’ sounds like garbage but personal items are not garbage. Other terms sometimes used for items from the tsunami are ‘tsunami driftage’ or ‘floating articles’. The reality is that most of the items we find from the tsunami are not traceable or valuable. However, we maintain the utmost respect for personal items we find on our beaches and make every effort to identify objects that may be returned to their owner. Thanks for reading the blog! Kate Le Souef


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