Cowichan Business Giving Back to the Community

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Resiliency Meets Stewardship for Cowichan Business Owner

Cowichan is a region of artisans, farmers, small business owners and craft producers. The people who choose Cowichan for their home, come for the lifestyle — a combination of natural beauty, diverse recreation, and a vibrant small business community. It’s an area that inspires people to be passionate about what they do and where they live.

Russell Markel, owner of Outer Shores Expeditions based in Mill Bay, is no exception. Outer Shores Expeditions offers four to nine-day seafaring adventures aboard the 21-metre Passing Cloud — a classic wooden schooner. Guests experience the natural beauty of the west coast, through the raw shorelines, the vibrant wildlife and the rich culture of the area. It’s an intimate experience with just six guests and three or four crew members on board.

Credit: North Coast Cetacean Society

Russell has lived on Vancouver Island for over 25 years. With a PhD in Marine Ecosystem Ecology, he came to the island through his studies at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre. For the past few years, he’s been enjoying the Cowichan lifestyle with his family in Cobble Hill. 

“Cowichan just has everything. It has a little bit of everything. And every day we note that we’re so lucky to live here,” says Russell. “On any day we can go down to the ocean, we can go to Cowichan Bay and the marina we can take our son down to see the sea lions. We can get a German croissant at the True Grain Bakery, but we also take our dog for hikes along the Cowichan River and into the mountains.”

2020 has brought a flood of challenges to the tourism industry on Vancouver Island and around the world. Transitioning from a fully booked season to an empty schedule due to the pandemic, Russell and the other small vessel operators had to do something to make it through the season. 

Russell and Kevin Smith, owner of Maple Leaf Adventures, began collaborating on innovative ideas to keep their businesses going. ”It was really important early on not just to look for bailout money,” says Russell. They wanted to earn government funding while aiding the environment that provides their livelihood. “And we eventually landed on this idea of doing an unprecedented, in scale and in location, Marine Debris Removal Initiative.”

Credit: Outer Shores Expeditions

This unprecedented clean up was awarded a 3.5 million dollar grant from the Government of British Columbia’s Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative Fund. It would involve five of the Small Ship Tour Operators Association of BC members, three local First Nations, nine vessels, a barge, a helicopter and would clean over 600 kilometres of the British Columbian coastline in just six weeks.

As a person who earns his living by promoting the wild BC coast, this opportunity to give back to the region he operates in, both environmentally and financially, was an obvious win for Russell. The initiative not only cleared 127 metric tonnes of waste from the shores, obliterating the goal of 25-30 metric tonnes — it also enabled operators to rehire crews and office members, employing 100 full or part-time staff.

Russell lives much of his life on the ocean, and even for him the quantity of debris was an eyeopener, “I did not realize the magnitude of this issue. It blew my mind just how much debris is out there . . . and you know it’s sobering, and if not depressing, of how we’re going tackle this, it’s a massive issue.” 

Crews collected an excess of abandoned fishing gear, plastic drinking bottles, tires, electronics, polystyrene, children’s toys, and even a mannequin head. Russell says they found “pretty much everything you can imagine” on the BC shores.

A secondary aspect of the initiative was bringing this issue to the public to help people understand the magnitude of the problem. “There are immediate benefits to getting any amount of marine debris off of our shorelines,” says Russell, “and we were able to get [127] tonnes — that’s amazing, but all that plastic comes with risks to coastal wildlife.”

As the crews filled 785 helicopter lift bags of debris, the contrast between the raw beauty of the area and the mountains of garbage was disturbing. “I want this coast to be healthy and vibrant for my son and future generations,” he says, “so that’s definitely had a big impact on me.”

Credit: Outer Shores Expeditions

From looking for a way to navigate the waters of COVID-19 to removing 127 tonnes of debris from our shores, Russell and his teams have shown what can happen when resiliency meets sustainability. He didn’t want to lay low and accept government funding. Russell helped create an opportunity to turn a bad situation into an incredible project to clean our shorelines, employ more people, and educate the public on the health of our oceans. Stewardship of the land and waterways is an important value for many Cowichan residents. Through hard work, innovative project design, and a commitment to our oceans, Russell and his team were able to contribute to this Cowichan value and way of life.

To find out more about the project, please visit:

Meg Cuthbert

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