Get to Know a Volunteer: Matt Unger, Ocean Advocate

Meet Matt, the 2014 Chair of the Vancouver Surfrider Chapter. He has dedicated his life to research and environmental advocacy.  matt-blog

 Q. What was your childhood like?

I’m from the small region of Manitoba called Greenland. The closest town, Landmark, is exactly in the centre of Canada and divides our country from East to West. I grew up on a family farm which taught me the value of hard work from a young age. We were home schooled, so once I finished my classes and chores each day, I was free to roam the pristine surroundings of our land. I spent most of my time outdoors in the boreal forest enjoying and studying the marshes and prairie watershed. Our family was active in 4-H where my dad led our annual “Adopt a Highway” program. Our 4-H group was responsible for maintaining the largest Adopt a Highway area of the highway free of litter and trash. We had fun with it, finishing cleanups with BBQs and games on one of our parent’s farms.

Q. What drew you to Vancouver?

When I first experienced Vancouver, I was stunned by the beauty of the city and its surroundings. I love that nature is at our doorstep and that it is an international city. Coming from -51C Winnipeg winters the climate is pretty great too.

Q. How does living in different areas of Canada give you a broader understanding of the current environmental state of our country?

Population density plays a huge part in the awareness of environmental issues. The public seems to push environmental policy much more in urban areas. When one group makes a negative impact on the environment we all enjoy it is much harder to ignore it when you see it every day. Protecting our environment, especially the oceans, is about making sure all stakeholders have a voice at the table. In cities like Vancouver we have much larger recreational communities who want to be able to enjoy nature, I think this gives us a strong voice.

Q. How long have you been involved with the Surfrider Foundation Vancouver Chapter?

I have been involved with Surfrider Vancouver for 2 years now. I first heard about Surfrider when I was working for Virgin Oceanic in California conducting ocean research. Surfrider originated in Southern California and has many chapters throughout the state an around the world. When I came to Vancouver, I attended a chapter meeting at Sitka and have been a member and a volunteer ever since.

Q. As the Chair of Surfrider Vancouver, what are your main duties?

This year, the Surfrider team is building and growing our chapter. My main duty is to grow and support this incredible team of leaders. Currently, I spend a lot of time networking with local government and community groups to raise awareness about plastic pollution and the current health of our oceans. Right now I spend a lot of my time partnering with other environmental groups and businesses to help plan events such as the Kits Beach Earth Month beach cleanup on April 12.

Q. What do you like best about beach cleanup events?

I really enjoy the fact that beach cleanups are quick and effective, zero waste and a lot of fun. We are able to record measurable data from each event and it’s great to kick back and enjoy a spotless beach after 2 hours of pitching in and giving back.

Q. How does plastic accumulation in the ocean affect us?

Well, plastic is everywhere in the ocean and only 10-15% of the total plastic accumulation is on the surface of the water, the rest either sinks or is suspended between the ocean’s floor and surface. The vast amount of polycarbon substances in the water is having a huge effect on our marine and bird life. Researchers like the 5 Gyres team spent months in the North Pacific Gyre taking samples from marine life and the water, there were no examples of life that had not been affected by plastic or the existence of humans. Science, as of late is just beginning to accept that broken down plastic can affect hormones in not only animals but also in the human body.

Q. In your opinion, what is the answer to reducing plastic in our natural environment?

We have to turn off the tap of single use plastics. The cost of this “convenience” is enormous. We need to grow our team and work together with communities, government and businesses to implement viable alternatives here in Vancouver that many other cities all over the world have already adopted.

Q. What is bioremediation and how long have you been studying it?

Bioremediation is the process of degrading toxins or contaminants using plants, bacteria or fungi. I have been studying fungi based bioremediation for 6 years; we are researching how fungi can be used to breakdown wastes from the oil, gas and mining sectors. While there has been a lot of promising lab research over the past few decades our goal is to advance the science in the field and encourage the resource industries to take advantage of solutions that are both natural and beneficial to the restoration of these sites.