As Robert Keeley drove through Geiger Key one day last month, he caught a glimpse of something odd out of the corner of his eye. He backed up to get a better look. It was a white ibis, lurching about in a way that looked unnatural to Keeley, who works at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary office in Key West.
Keeley pulled off the road, turned on his emergency flashers and set out on foot after the distressed bird, which had retreated into the mangroves. He slogged through the mud in pursuit of the ibis until he finally caught up with it. He removed his shirt and threw it over the frantic bird to subdue it.
Back at the car, Keeley examined the animal and discovered a white plastic ring from a milk jug cap around its neck and beak. The seriously dehydrated bird had been unable to drink or eat since becoming entangled in the plastic.
It’s a scenario that plays out far too often in and around the Florida Keys — carelessly discarded marine debris ends up injuring or killing wildlife or otherwise harming the environment. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines marine debris as “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, is disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment.”
And persistent it is. In an area of the North Pacific Ocean not-so-affectionately called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, researchers are keeping tabs on a massive concentration of plastics and other debris suspended high in the water column and caught in the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. In some parts of the Garbage Patch the concentration of plastic particles has been so great that its mass outweighed that of zooplankton — the main form of animal life in the area — by seven times.
And according to Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary communications coordinator Karrie Carnes, on cleanups conducted by a handful of staff and volunteers in the lower region of the Sanctuary, approximately 4,500 pounds of marine debris has already been collected this year alone from Keys waters. Of that, 2,000 pounds was trap line — a ton of which represents close to 20 miles of line.
Whether it’s fishing line, grocery bags, plastic milk jug rings or abandoned traps, marine debris is taking a toll on the environment throughout the Keys and around the world.
Traps take a toll
According to a study released last week, 75 percent of the debris researchers found in ocean and bay waters surrounding the Keys was the result of lobster and crab trapping.
Thomas Matthews, associate research scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said the survey spanned an area of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary from Key West to Key Largo out to approximately six miles on the Atlantic side and approximately 12 miles on the Gulf and bay sides of the island chain. Matthews was joined in the research by scientists from NOAA and Keys Marine Laboratory.
The research was carried out in the summer of 2006 by two divers who were towed from a boat 15 feet apart and five to ten feet off the ocean floor in water at least 100 feet deep. Over 96 tows, the team surveyed an area spanning 768,000 square meters. Their task was to count every manmade item they could see, and they saw plenty.
The divers counted 796 debris incidences, of which 595 were trap related – predominantly wood, rope and cement slabs, but also plastics and wire. Most traps were broken, but over five percent of them were intact. Divers found the highest concentrations of debris on the reef, followed by sandy and then hard bottoms. Seagrass and algae habitats were least likely to hold marine debris. The ocean off the Middle Keys was the area with the highest incidence of trap debris, while the bay off the Middle Keys held the least amount.
“Our survey indicates that people wanting to remove debris should target the reefs, because that’s where the debris seems to accumulate,” Matthews said. “That’s also the area most sensitive to damage.”
Risks for wildlife
While the ibis Keeley rescued was able to be rehabilitated and released, other birds and animals in the Keys are not as fortunate.
Maya Totman, founder and director of Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue Inc. on Big Pine Key, has been working to mitigate the damage caused by marine debris for over eight years. Her frustration is apparent as she recounts story after story of animals — and people — injured or killed by marine debris. A manatee entangled in monofilament line. A raccoon with an aluminum can stuck in its paw. A key deer with a lobster net snarled in its antlers. A 7-year-old child with a dirty fishing hook lodged in his foot.
“It’s getting worse and worse,” Totman said. “The human population, both locals and visitors, must learn how to dispose of trash properly.”
With that goal in mind, Totman and a representative from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will soon begin visiting each bridge in the Keys that is frequented by anglers, to personally deliver their anti-littering and monofilament recycling message in both English and Spanish.
“We put up the signs and the trash cans and the fishing line recycling receptacles, but that’s not enough,” Totman said. “We’re going to go to the bridges and actually talk to people, face-to-face. We think that’s the best way to make them understand how serious this is.”
On the bridges, Totman and her partner will give the people they meet a bilingual brochure. They’ll answer questions and will explain why it’s important to recycle monofilament and properly dispose of trash. They will also educate anglers about how to help an animal that becomes hooked or entangled in fishing line.
Activists in the Upper Keys are also doing what they can to educate residents and clean up marine and other debris. According to Christi Allen, event chair and member of the Green Living and Energy Education steering committee, volunteers will fan out across the area on Saturday, Nov. 22, in a massive effort that will culminate in an “R4 Fair” designed to raise public awareness of the ways to reduce, reuse, recycle and compost (rot) waste so it doesn’t end up in the water.
Allen said the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, the village of Islamorada and the Upper Keys Green Team are collaborating to promote the community cleanups. The Key Largo Community Cleanup will run from 8 a.m. to noon. Islamorada’s cleanup of the Whale Harbor bridge area will begin at 9 a.m. The fair, which will double as an appreciation party for all the cleanup volunteers, will be held at the Key Largo Community Park from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and is sponsored by GLEE and Mariner’s Hospital.
“Our main focus is to make people more conscious of the impact of their decisions,” Allen said. “Because of our geography in the Keys, it’s so easy for our trash to be swept off into the water. We have to inspire people to be proactive and aware, and to pick up the trash they see before it goes into the water.”
In 1999, Florida launched a statewide fishing line recycling program. Since then, other states have emulated Florida’s effort to reduce monofilament pollution in the water and on land. Today, more than 40 counties in Florida — including Monroe — participate in the recycling program. Collected monofilament is sent to Pure Fishing America, where it is melted and turned into items like tackleboxes and line spools.
Most monofilament line is not biodegradable and can take hundreds of years to break down. It is an extremely dangerous form of marine debris because wildlife can either become entangled in it or can eat it. Even fishing line that has been thrown in the trash can cause a problem if it blows out of the can or the landfill, or if it is removed by birds and animals.
To ensure that your discarded fishing line does not harm wildlife or the environment, put it into one of the outdoor recycling receptacles located throughout the Keys. Many bait and tackle shops also have recycling containers for their customers to use.
To learn more about monofilament recycling, see www.fishinglinerecycling.org.