Sixteen lucky volunteers will be combing the most southerly beaches in the country next month for trash from as far afield as Australia. A large-scale rubbish clean-up funded mostly by commercial fishers and run by volunteers is set for Stewart Island-Rakiura next month. The five-day beach clean-up - so popular people are turned away - is organised by the South Coast Charitable Trust. It starts on 12 July and will focus on the island's western coastline. But trust administrator and clean-up organiser Joyce Kolk, who lives on the mainland, is always on rubbish duty. She has "a bag or two or three" ready at all times for gathering-up other people's detritus. What is exercising her at present is the growing number of plastic shotgun wads she is finding on Ōreti Beach near Invercargill where she walks regularly. The inner cartridge components are also showing up on Stewart Island. "What happened to them being made of cardboard?" Kolk said. Duck-shooting season, which runs from 6 May to mid-July and is administered by Fish & Game, undoubtedly has something to do with. Kolk feels so strongly about the unwelcome finds that she visited the local Fish & Game office. "They fobbed me off like I was a pain in the arse, which I probably am," she said. That might be one view. But fellow trustee Pete Young said Kolk, who received a Queens Service Medal for services to conservation in 2019, is "an amazing lady". "She's a bloody dynamo who is always doing roadside clean-ups or beach clean-ups." Rubbish mountain Since the trust's first clean-up more than 20 years ago Kolk, Young and the other trustees and volunteers have collected and disposed of more than 72 tonnes of rubbish. That's the accumulated garbage from seven efforts on Stewart Island and Fiordland beaches. But most of it comes off the island. July's will be the fourth island stint, made possible with cash from the fishing and crayfishing industry and sweet deals on accommodation, transport and fuel from other sponsors. To keep the $100,000-plus costs down volunteer numbers have been halved from 32 to 16, with a day added to compensate. Kolk would love to be able to afford more person-power. "I would like to take 100 people just to show them what it is like out there. "And I would have no problems getting 100 people." Part of the payback for volunteers is unearthing the "weirdest surprises", including a truck bumper and for sale signs from Australia, gas bottles and a motorbike. Young said you find "anything and everything that has ever been made of plastic", including bailage wrap, pens, toothbrushes, a plastic gun and a one-legged toy solider he kept as a clean-up souvenir. The imitation gun caught the attention of the local police. "When it went in the newspaper that we had picked up a pistol I had them ringing up to see what we had done with it," Kolk said. Much of the rubbish is buried in sand, has to be pried out of trees or is in grass margins. Sporting events such as the Football World Cup are recorded in rubbish. "We picked up five leather soccer balls and that was in mid-Fiordland," Kolk said. Kolk said they are noticing more household rubbish including a large quantity in a Fiordland clean-up that she suspects originated from the Fox Glacier dump on the West Coast, which was exposed in heavy rain in March 2019. Plastic un-fantastic Stewart Island's bird life pays the price of casually discarded rubbish with volunteers finding increasing numbers of carcasses they think are the result of ingested plastic. "Last time I would have seen 50 dead birds and it's only a small area that covers about 80km of accessible beaches along the western side of the island," Kolk said. There were telltale pieces of plastic in the vicinity of the carcasses, she said. This clean-up they will collect the plastic and dead birds and bring them back for Lloyd Esler, Southland's pre-eminent bird expert, to examine. The trust's beginnings can be traced back to a conversation in 2001 between Young and helicopter pilot Wayne Pratt when they were working together ferrying crayfish out of Chalky Inlet in Fiordland. Flying over the coast on one occasion Pratt reported seeing "so much plastic and s..t on the beach" that he proposed a clean-up. The first effort cost about $25,000, which fundraising just managed to cover. Pratt has since moved away but Young, who lives in Te Anau, is still part of the crayfishing industry and has remained heavily involved in conservation efforts. He is an original Guardian of Fiordland and contributed to the development of the Fiordland marine conservation strategy. In more than 45 years in the industry he has seen a shift in attitude when it comes to rubbish disposal and efforts to avoid losing gear over the side of fishing vessels. "The industry has cleaned up its act hugely," he said. When he gave an interview after an earlier clean-up, a fisherman who saw red at what he had to say told him: "I've been throwing my s..t over the side for years and I'm not stopping for you." Young said in the face of such attitudes among the "old boys", he invited some of their younger crew on a clean-up, after which they all had rubbish bins aboard their boats. Kolk acknowledges that what fishing gear goes overboard now is largely by accident. "They don't want to lose a $1200 craypot or an expensive fishing net do they?" Kolk said. "We don't come across bits of rope anymore and we no longer pick up drums of oil that were biffed overboard after an oil change." Kolk said a lot of the fishing gear they do find is identifiable as coming from overseas. Back-breaking work Retrieving rubbish from the beach isn't for the faint-hearted, especially in a Southland winter. "A lot of people think it's just going to be a walk along the beach and they come back in at night time and are absolutely shattered," Kolk, who is 57, said. Her husband, Johan Groters, is 10 years older and also volunteers. "You just go on because you know you have to get to the end of the beach." As well as sore backs, sand-blasted spectacle lenses from swirling winds are another occupational hazard on a Stewart Island clean-up. Conditions can be unkind and after a day of picking up rubbish a sought-after spot is in front of the fire, Kolk said. "We are out at daylight and back in the evening and then it's time for telling lies around the fire," she said. The volunteers and trustees are a hardy bunch. Trust chair and Invercargill lawyer Geoff Walker sleeps in a tent. Helicopter pilot and trustee Dale Green, who was a volunteer during his first few clean-ups and has since become Kolk's son-in-law, usually sleeps in the kitchen but this year will be in a tent as well. Despite the conditions, volunteer spaces are keenly sought. All the July volunteer spots were gone within a fortnight, Kolk said. Before work gets under way the beaches are surveyed by air to figure out the best areas to tackle. "There is a lot of skill in placing us in the right places. "Some beaches you can spend all day on and still not have picked up all the rubbish," Kolk said. One such place is Doughboy Bay, which the tides make a natural rubbish tip. All 16 volunteers can be expected to be occupied there for a day and a half. Nearby Masons Bay, in contrast, has a long beach and expansive sand dunes and is less prone to rubbish accumulation. Volunteers set off each day with two sacks and a cubic-metre wool bale, known in the south as a fadge. Full fadges are left above the high-tide mark to be carted by helicopter to a freighter for transporting to Bluff, where the rubbish is sorted into recycling or for landfill disposal. Volunteer Tracker Black, whose rubbish collection days are over, co-ordinates the sorting. Some rubbish from past clean-ups - nets, buoys and rope - has been repurposed as decorations for the Bluff Oyster and Food Festival. A frustrating pursuit Kolk said she is often asked when collecting rubbish at Ōreti Beach why she does it. "I say because it doesn't belong here. "It's a privilege to be allowed on a beach. "We shouldn't be so disrespectful as to empty our cars of rubbish there or throw bottles in the sand dunes - children play there." She believes it should be free for people to dispose of rubbish. And going against the prevailing view, she would like rubbish bins back in rest areas. "Many rest areas are near waterways and if they don't have bins people are more likely to throw their rubbish on the ground where it will blow into the water and end up on coastlines," she said. She is so committed she would like to do more clean-ups. The volumes of rubbish they are finding on Stewart Island would justify a large-scale annual clean-up. But it comes down to money. "If we had more money we would do more clean-ups," Young said. Little is forthcoming from local or central government. The Department of Conservation provides free volunteer accommodation and WasteNet, which is owned by four southern local authorities, disposes of collected landfill rubbish. Environment Southland support for the trust stopped during the Covid pandemic, although Young is hopeful it will be resumed. For more information about the clean-up or to make a donation visit: Southern Coastal Charitable Trust. * Vaneesa Bellew is a freelance writer based in Te Anau. This story was originally published on Newsroom.
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