Written by John Williams
Photography by Jamie Cobel
This event is only one of hundreds of initiatives being coordinated around Auckland and beyond by the eco warriors from Sea Cleaners. At the helm of Sea Cleaners is Hayden Smith, its founding trustee and recipient of the 2017 Local Hero Award – part of the annual Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards. Since 2002, Hayden has been out on the waters and the foreshores around the Waitemata and Manukau Harbours, five days a week, with his team of volunteers and full-timers, removing rubbish and making our ocean a safer place for us and the marine life living in it.
I caught up with Hayden early one morning, just after daybreak, down at Westhaven Marina, as he prepared his team for another day out on the harbour.
My first question was, where did it all begin?
“I happened to be kayaking out in the harbour one morning and found myself surrounded by rubbish – so much so that I was devastated to think how much more there was out here,” he says. “I knew the city [of Auckland] was doing something to clean up the streets, but no-one seemed to be cleaning up the harbour – so I thought, this is a job I can do, and away we went.”
Hayden says it was a huge job to get the Sea Cleaners’ initiative up and running. “There was a lot of knocking on doors at the local councils to get their support and to persuade the city’s leadership to back it, and also to get corporate sponsors on board with financial help. All that took about two years, but eventually we got it all up and running,” he says.
Thirteen years on and Sea Cleaners now has six full-time crew members, hopefully rising to 20 by 2020; that’s in addition to 120,000-plus volunteer hours of local support he’s had over the years. And it’s this local support that has been the driving force behind Hayden’s inspiration to keep going. He really feels that he and his team are reaching the public to highlight the issues and to help them change their habits.
Hayden sees the problem as twofold.
Firstly, there’s the aesthetic aspect, not just for us locals who live on or near the water, but also for the millions of tourists who visit New Zealand every year. “As a country, tourism is our biggest earner. If we’re not looking after our beaches and coastlines, then we are seriously endangering our economy,” he says. “Secondly, there’s the impact plastic has on pretty much all marine and bird life, through entanglement and ingestion. The number of sea creatures that are affected by plastic each year is horrific – it’s in the multiple millions.”
One, ironically, was a NZ Pure sticker.
He goes on to cite a case of a turtle from the Galapagos Islands that was sent to New Zealand for an autopsy and it was found to have over 250 separate pieces of plastic in its system, three of which were identified as coming from New Zealand.
“Most of the debris is plastic waste – lolly wrappers, chip packets, drink bottles, polystyrene packaging – and 90% of it has come from the land through the storm water systems,” he says. “It’s not always been dropped by people, either – it could be because of cats and dogs ripping open rubbish bags, birds pulling stuff out of over-full bins, or simply the wind blowing rubbish around. Unfortunately, the sea is downhill from everywhere, so that’s where most of the rubbish ends up.”
And it’s not an insignificant amount. Currently, Sea Cleaners have three boats working full-time on the Waitemata and Manukau Harbours, and in Upper Northland, with each pulling out about 300,000 litres, or 10 shipping containers worth of rubbish a year. To date, that has amounted to more than five million litres of rubbish from the waterways around Auckland.
My next question to Hayden is, how can people help?
“Pick up one piece of trash a day – it doesn’t matter where you are, just one piece a day. If we can encourage 4.5 million people to do that every single day, then that would be a wonderful thing to see,” he says. “Also, think about using re-usable drinks bottles and re-usable supermarket shopping bags, or saying no to the plastic bag at the dairy to carry your milk or bread home.
“And just because something’s been recycled doesn’t make it ocean-friendly, so don’t be fooled into thinking a recycled logo makes it OK. Anything that’s made of plastic has a negative impact on the ocean – end of story.”
Hayden goes onto to explain that biodegradable plastics aren’t any better when it comes to polluting our oceans, as they need heat to break them down. “The ocean’s a cold place, therefore so-called degradable plastic bags can cause the same problems as any other piece of plastic in our oceans.”
From a community perspective, the involvement with local schools is critical to the Sea Cleaners’ programme. For Hayden, it’s about providing students with an experience to remember, where they see the need for the change, then go home and tell their parents and friends about what’s going on.
“On top of that, we need more leadership from the local business community to organise and run events like the Cox’s Bay Clean Up,” he says. “This is the third year running we’ve been involved with Ray White Damerell Group, and it’s been bigger and better each time – to see the community pulling together and getting involved, that’s what really inspires us.”