Coastal Clean-Up Efforts Take A Dive In Pensacola

Susan Grantham (352) 392-2801

Sonya Wood Mahler (850) 475-5230
Denise Washick (727) 895-2188
Kristin Valette (800) 729-7234, ext. 439

PENSACOLA—As volunteers from around the state begin their annual coastal cleanup projects in September, University of Florida marine agents are taking the effort to the next level by removing underwater debris before it washes up on the shoreline.

“When it comes to stuff lurking below the surface of our coastal and inland waters, there are some amazing stories,” said event coordinator Sonya Wood Mahler, extension marine agent with UF’s Sea Grant program in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. “Since we started this project a few years ago, we’ve brought up everything from typewriters and tires to a 750-pound ball of fishing line wrapped around a shopping cart.”

She said the volunteers have conducted underwater clean-ups at different sites from Panama City to Mobile, Ala. The most common sites are under piers and bridges, at jetties and artificial reefs as well as boat ramps and along shoreline. Based on the success of the Sea Grant program in West Florida, volunteers in other coastal areas of the state also are beginning to dive into the underwater cleanup effort, too.

“Out of sight, out of mind was how the marine debris issue was approached for years,” said Mahler. “Today, everyone is more aware of the negative impact debris, especially plastics, can have on our marine resources.

“Each time we do this, we learn something new,” she said. “We’ve recovered some interesting items as well, including entire fishing rigs, a dive suit and a titanium knife. We auction these items and use the money for future clean-up efforts. Stainless steel shears are one of the items we need the most in this work to cut debris away from structures and to separate lead weights from fishing lines.”

To begin the underwater cleanup, Mahler has recruited divers from dive shops and dive clubs. She said volunteers need to be experienced divers capable of working in low visibility and heavy current areas. While the clean-up dives are scheduled at high tide to gain the best visibility and the least current, there is a certain risk factor associated with these efforts.

“Miles of discarded fishing line frequently form mats along the ocean bottom, entangling marine creatures and other debris and potentially the volunteer. We average about 25 volunteer divers each year, and another 50 volunteers do the sorting,” she said.

Once the debris is removed from the water, the sorters immediately begin removing any marine creatures such as fish and mollusks that are entangled in the trash. The debris is weighed, and the items are sorted into recyclable and non-recyclable categories. Recyclable items include aluminum, fishing gear and monofilament line. Non-recyclable items are taken to the landfill.

Information on each piece of debris is recorded, and the data are submitted to Project Aware, the nonprofit educational arm of the Professional Association of Dive Instructors. Project Aware then submits the data to the Center for Marine Conservation, a nonprofit environmental organization in Washington, D.C.

“We are looking forward to a record number of volunteers and tonnage of debris collected this year,” said Kristin Valette, coordinator for Project Aware. “Last year more than 700 groups participated in the international underwater clean-up event. Thirty-five underwater clean-up efforts were coordinated in Florida alone.”

Denise Washick, who helps coordinate coastal clean-up programs across the nation for the Marine Conservation Center, said volunteers contributed to the 730,230 pounds of debris recorded during Florida’s coastal clean-up in 1998.

Mahler said the Northwest Florida underwater clean-up effort grew out of a 1988 international treaty that prohibits ocean dumping of plastics. Before the treaty, it was not illegal to dump trash overboard.

She said the Pensacola-based volunteer group has a mollusk mascot, the spiny murex, which has a white outer shell and is pink on this inside.

“We frequently find spiny murexes in some of the underwater debris in Pensacola Bay,” she said. “Often times these mollusks are caught in the monofilament line, even to the point of having the line growing through their shell. The fishing line does not kill the mollusk, but it does restrict its ability to move. It just shows how resilient the marine system and its creatures can be.”

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