Restoring the Harbour: A Healthier Home for Fish and Cleaner Waves for Surfers

On the East Coast of Canada, a Water Cleanup Initiative Inspires a B Corp Film

The author surfs Mispec Beach with the Canaport liquified natural gas terminal in the background. (Photo by Matt Fitzpatrick)

I was on my surfboard, paddling WAY out to a surf break that only my friend Joe surfed before, and that was only two days earlier.

My city—Saint John, New Brunswick—is not really known for surfing. There are natural reasons for this, but also some human-impact reasons as well.

Back in the late 2000s, we had been eying Courtenay Bay for a good year or two before any of us jumped in to try to surf her waves. Whenever there was a southwest wind and a low pressure system, we would see epic waves that would just go forever. But no one dared to surf them at Courtenay because most of our city’s aging sewage infrastructure was falling apart and most of it dumped into our harbour untreated. But those waves! BUT THOSE LONG POWERFUL WAVES!

The long waves of Courtenay Bay, surrounded by a wallboard plant, power generation plant and an oil refinery. (Photo by Greg Hemmings)

After my friend Joe reported a stellar session, I decided to join him and some of my other surfing buddies and give Courtenay’s a go, and it was stellar! One of my first waves went for 60 seconds, which is a really long wave for our part of the world. I filmed that session with my GoPro, and the grin on my face exploded with excitement whenever I caught one of the long 5-foot rollers.

But later, when I got home, I noticed something when I took off my wetsuit. I was covered in a rash. Gross. I actually had to go to the doctor and get an antibiotic to deal with it. The fact that the water that makes those beautiful waves gave me a nasty rash broke my heart. How could we have such stellar waves five minutes from uptown and not be able to surf them? And how does any living thing underwater survive in such polluted waters?

Hemmings House is part of the community of Certified B Corporations. Learn more about this growing movement of people using business as a force for good, and sign up to receive the B the Change Weekly newsletter for more stories like this one, delivered straight to your inbox once a week.

Childhood Memories, on the Water

To get some context for my love and respect for water, we must rewind a few decades.

When I was a child, I would spend endless days swimming, sailing, paddling and skating on the waterways surrounding Saint John on the East Coast of Canada. I was privileged to live close to the Atlantic Ocean and two majestic rivers: the Wolastoq (aka Saint John River) and the Kennebecasis River.

Some shots of my young days sailing with my family.

Both rivers converge at the Reversing Falls Rapids, a narrow gorge that violently flows out to the Atlantic Ocean at low tide, then rages back in at high tide. At the bottom of the Reversing Falls Rapids sits the majestic Bay of Fundy. Our tides are not like anywhere else in the world; in fact, they are the highest and most powerful on the planet. The tide in the bay rises and recedes 16 meters (about 53 feet) twice a day!

At the half-tide point, you can pass the Reversing Falls Rapids safely in a boat, but the slack tide only lasts about 30 minutes until it becomes dangerous and eventually deadly to pass through.

My family, sailing through the Reversing Falls Rapids at slack tide in the 1980s.

The waters surrounding my city are so incredibly interesting!

Being introduced to the rivers and the ocean by my parents at a young age has instilled a devotion and love for water that gets stronger as I get older.

Something else I was exposed to at an early age was skateboarding. My dad owned a bike and skate shop in our city when I was a kid, and this exposed me to the skateboarding world that I fell in love with. I would spend endless summer nights learning tricks and trying to master the small half pipe my brother built in our backyard. Eventually, my skateboard passion evolved into a snowboarding passion in the winter seasons. In my mid-30s, my wife and I learned how to surf in Hawaii, and eventually surfing became an all-season water activity for me to fall in love with.

My wife and I learning to surf for the first time, during a 2006 vacation in Hawaii.

The week we got back from that trip, we did some research and found that there were a few guys who surfed in Saint John. I had no idea. I immediately bought a board from Terry, one of the early-day surfers in our waters. Terry, along with Joe, Pete and Dave welcomed me into their small, tight-knit surf community. It was this group of fellas who I jumped into Courtenay Bay with on that glorious wave-day that resulted in a nasty rash. As a result, we spent most of our future surf days at two other beaches that were considerably cleaner.

After the Cleanup

In 2014, a local environmental group called the Atlantic Coastal Action Program Saint John (ACAPSJ) announced that a multiyear, multi-stakeholder harbour cleanup initiative was complete, and within one day and one ribbon cutting, the raw sewage from the east side of our city, along with the industrial effluent, stopped flowing into our waters.

It didn’t take long for the fish to come back.

It didn’t take long for the birds to come back.

It didn’t take long for the vegetation to come back.

It didn’t take long for the surfers and paddlers to come back.

Today, the water is cleaner and safe to swim and surf in. What a difference. We now surf Courtenay’s often, and there are no more rashes. It took the will of environmental groups, citizen volunteers, scientists, municipal leadership and industry to come together to make the harbour cleanup happen. It took a number of years, but our city is so much better as a result.

The movie poster, designed by Allie Beckwith.

Every time I sit on my board past the break and look toward my city with its old brick and sandstone, with its natural surroundings, and with its Gotham City-like industrial skyline, I feel grateful. As a filmmaker, I wanted to make a film that captured that view and the feeling I get while sitting on the board and looking at my city that I love, warts and all.

We produced a surf film to celebrate the cleanup of our waters!

After a number of community members and organizations helped me raise a few dollars, we made From the Water, a film about the Saint John surf scene and our happy surfers enjoying clean water to play in. On a good day you can count up to 15 or more bobbing heads in one of our three surf spots, including Courtenay Bay. The film celebrates the grittiness of our industrial city and the spirit to make right the wrongs of the past and invest in infrastructure that protects the majestic waters that we rely on so much.

Click here for more information about Hemmings House and to sign up for a link to the whole film.

B the Change gathers and shares the voices from within the movement of people using business as a force for good and the community of Certified B Corporations. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the nonprofit B Lab.


Restoring the Harbour: A Healthier Home for Fish and Cleaner Waves for Surfers was originally published in B the Change on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: B the Change

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