Those of us who are fortunate to live in the Keys have a special relationship with the ocean.
For many, its health has a direct bearing on livelihood. For others, it provides recreation, opportunities to observe its amazing bounty of life, or quiet moments to reflect while watching the sun paint the sky with brilliant colors as it is rising or setting over the narrow chain of islands we call home.
Most of us don’t want to trash the Keys. But, unfortunately, not everyone seems to have the same concern. Some thoughtless people throw all manner of litter and debris along our roadways, onto the shores and into the ocean.
Fortunately, many others, including the dive community, are working to keep the Keys and its waters clean.
As I descended down the line, the superstructure of a sunken wreck started to take shape in the hazy water.
Getting closer to the ship I could see pairs of scuba divers pulling and cutting on strands of filament that were entangled on the wreck — the intentionally-sunk 189-foot-long Thunderbolt, which rests in 120 feet of water four miles south of Marathon and Key Colony Beach.
The 16 divers, mostly instructors and divemasters who work for six dive operations in the Upper, Middle and Lower Keys (A Deep Blue Dive Center, Southern Most Surface Solution, Little Palm Island Divers, Sundance Water Sports, Looe Key Dive Center and Resort, and Conch Republic Divers), and representatives of the Florida Wildlife Commission, were volunteering their time to participate in the 30th annual Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup — the world’s largest volunteer effort to clean up our beaches and waterways.
The divers removed two large mesh bags of fishing line plastic and other debris from the submerged vessel.
Jeff Neidlinger, owner of A Deep Blue Dive Center, has organized the underwater cleanup of the Thunderbolt for the last 12 years to remove the fishing line, which can be a real hazard by entangling divers and marine life. A few years ago, a lucky stone crab was saved during one of the line removal efforts.
When we returned to the dock, Neidlinger thanked the divers for their thorough job of removing fishing line and debris.
“It looks like we are making headway. Each year we get less trash and fishing line off the wreck,” he said.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that helps formulate ocean policy at the federal and state government levels, we have a profound stake in a healthy ocean that is free of trash and marine debris whether we live by a beach or hundreds of miles from the coastline.
The ocean sustains us with the basic elements of life, including producing half of the oxygen in the air we breathe.
The conservancy notes that we face many complex challenges when it comes to a clean and healthy ocean, but one problem is simple to understand: trash.
Unfortunately, what we see dirtying beaches and floating on the ocean’s surface is just the tip of the iceberg. Much more lies unseen beneath the surface and far away on the open water
More than an eyesore, trash in the water and on the shore affects the health of people, wildlife and economies.
Beaches provide habitat and nesting grounds for important ocean wildlife.
Trash threatens many of the animals in the ocean that are some of the most beloved on the planet. More than 600 species of marine animals are affected by ocean trash — from majestic whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles to hosts of sea birds and even tiny species of plankton.
Sea living animals become entangled in larger debris items like discarded fishing line, nets and rope. They also eat pieces of trash, ranging from microplastics to bottle caps and more. These items cause serious digestion problems and often death to the sea life.
The conservancy aims to create a world of trash free seas by building a movement inspiring us to stop littering the oceans and, thereby, to live cleaner, healthier lives
The good news is that more and more people are becoming aware of the need to improve the health of the oceans. They understand the importance of oceans and are taking steps to reduce the use of many items, such as single use plastics, which are harmful to the sea.
They also are participating in the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup.
Last year 300 employees of Cox Enterprises, one of the many private sector and government partners of the International Coastal Cleanup, removed almost 1,200 pounds of trash from beaches in Orange County, California, Seattle, Washington and Miami.
Their hauls included everything from bottles, plastic bags and cigarette butts to a supermarket shopping cart.
Jim Kennedy, Cox Enterprises chairman, has a personal interest in the ocean from growing up in Hawaii. He says, “Our oceans have become a dumping ground throughout the world, and we must do something to change that.”
Andreas Merkl, chief executive officer of the conservancy, says that over its 29 year history, the international coastal cleanup has engaged more than 10.5 million volunteers along 350,000 miles of shoreline to remove more than 192 million pounds of trash in all 50 states in the U.S and in 153 countries.
The residents of the Keys, in addition to the divers mentioned above, have enthusiastically joined the cleanup effort
The day I went out with A Deep Blue Dive Center, I received a call from a local church asking for volunteers to help pick up trash along the Overseas Highway.
The next day, while on a dive boat, another instructor told me that she and a group of volunteers had picked up more than 1,000 pounds of trash along a stretch of mangroves. She had put on her mask, snorkel and fins to float along the edge of the trees to collect the hard to reach litter.
For more on the Ocean Conservancy and its Coastal Cleanup efforts see: http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/marine-debris/2015-data-release/2015-data-release-pdf.pdf or http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/marine-debris/
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 29 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier four years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers