Cleaning up the back of beyond

Filling a fadge with rubbish between Barn Bay and Sandrock Bluff are (from left) Marietta Gibb, Robyn Hoglund and Robin Manera. Photos by Marjorie Cook.
Filling a fadge with rubbish between Barn Bay and Sandrock Bluff are (from left) Marietta Gibb, Robyn Hoglund and Robin Manera. Photos by Marjorie Cook.
It seems inconceivable South Westland's rugged, remote, boulder-piled beaches should be polluted by plastic. But at the foot of most driftwood mountains, there's a drink bottle, a sea-battered fishing float, or a tangle of ropes and nets. Marjorie Cook reports.

A young fur seal with a bright green netting necklace captured the hearts of many when its photograph was released for publication by the Department of Conservation in 2010.

The photograph was taken by Doc staff at Gillespies Beach, near Fox Glacier, and highlights the type of entanglements marine animals endure when they come into contact with fishing gear lost overboard.

This seal was lucky it was found and the net could be cut from around its throat. Marine wildlife enthusiasts can only imagine how many similar entanglements could occur to the fur seals, Fiordland crested penguins, dolphins and whales that occupy the west coast of New Zealand's South Island.

"It does happen and right around the country. If that seal wasn't rescued, it would have died and rotted away and that net would probably have washed away and killed something else," Doc West Coast conservancy marine specialist Don Neale says.

There is no single agency responsible for co-ordinating and advocating campaigns to reduce ocean litter. The main efforts are being made by community groups of volunteers, assisted by Doc where possible because of the effects on marine mammals.

Mr Neale advocates an interagency approach.

"Ultimately, the final solution is not to pick up all the rubbish you can find. That is a worthwhile thing to do. But ultimately, it is to get it at its source. If it is rubbish being thrown off boats, it's for Ministry of Fisheries or Maritime New Zealand.

"If it is getting into rivers, it's for regional councils ... It is a real big problem, not just for us.

"I suppose you have heard of the Great Pacific Patch. So it is local, regional, national and international," Mr Neale says.

(The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch is found between California and Hawaii, in the Pacific Ocean, and has been created by ocean currents bringing tonnes of plastic rubbish together into an area said to be twice the size of Texas: Source National Geographic News article by Brian Hardwick, July 31, 2009).

Last week, I joined eight South Westland volunteers and two Doc staff on the first South Westland cleanup of some of the most remote beaches in the country.

The beaches are part of a 2.6 million-hectare world heritage area giving access to the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring national parks.

The coast between Barn Bay and Big Bay is accessible only by foot, boat or air and is visited only by hunters, fishers and trampers.

Some of the cleanup team already knew how much rubbish was there because they did a coastal surveillance from the air late last year.

Gorge River residents Robert Long and Catherine Stewart have also been working over the summer, collecting dozens of Ravensdown Fertiliser fadges [wool-bale size bags with robust carry straps] full of plastic debris between their home and Sandrock Bluff.

Doc Franz Josef and South Westland community relations manager Julian Tovey was surprised at the amount of rubbish.

The volunteers split into two teams for last week's cleanup, with Mr Long and Ms Stewart and Fiordland Coast Walks guide Grant McKinnon working from Big Bay up to Gorge River, with an overnight camp at Hackett River.

At the northern end, Barn Bay bach owner Robyn Hoglund joined forces with Haast residents Marietta Gibb and Robin Manera, spending two days picking up rubbish between Sandrock Bluff and Barn Bay.

Haast-based Greenstone Helicopters pilots Geoff Robson and Peter Spencer-Bower used their Robinson 44 choppers to provide transport, carry equipment and deposit the full fadges at Gorge River for collection by Shane Nyhon in his fishing boat, Southern Legend.

Once Mr Nyhon gets the rubbish to Haast, Doc will sort the booty, identify its probable sources and contact businesses to begin the next phase of the campaign to promote good fishing practices and reduce ocean littering.

While it can be easy to point the finger at fishers - whether commercial or recreational, locals or visitors - ocean rubbish has lots of sources and rubbish drifts a long way.

Mr Tovey says the focus is on being positive with encouragement rather than punitive with enforcement. Sometimes gear is lost in circumstances beyond a fisher's control, such as bad weather or in an accident.

Mr Robson used to own the Gorge River bach before Mr Long and his family moved in but now lives at Neills Beach, where he and his wife Pat and their sons Andrew and Mike operate Barn Bay Fishing Company and a light engineering workshop, among other things.

Mr and Mrs Robson also co-ordinate local marine search-and-rescue callouts.

Mr Robson has been a keen "bush pilot" for many years and recently joined forces with Mr Spencer-Bower (25) to form Greenstone Helicopters.

The company provides commercial, tourism and search and rescue services for South Westland, filling the gap left when Dave Saxton's company Heliventures closed last year.

The weather was benign last week but several boats have met with disaster in foul conditions along the South Westland coast. We saw two wrecks last week.

One was an aluminium jet boat lost by former Barn Bay fisherman Lou Brown.

(He and Gorge River resident Robert Long survived the ordeal and Mr Long tells the adventure in his book A Life on Gorge River.)

The other was Mr Long's dinghy, washed away in a storm from Gorge River years ago and dumped many kilometres down the coast, where it has languished under driftwood in an increasingly dilapidated condition.

The dinghy was retrieved last week and flown back to Gorge Creek, where Mr Long was to consider what to do with it.

Other stuff in the rubbish stockpile includes plastic drink bottles, crayfish floats, buckets, nets and ropes, a rugby ball, a car tyre and axle, and a sunhat. There is even the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag.

The "Stolen from Talleys" stamp on a washed-up fish crate causes lots of mirth. And yes, the fishing company can have it back.

The volunteers believe much of the rubbish could have been in the ocean for years.

The most bizarre find went to Ms Hoglund.

"I've found a lightbulb. A whole, unbroken lightbulb. And heaps of plastic," she says.