We Sea Grant Agents joke that every day is Earth Day, and similarly, that every day is World Ocean Day. On World Ocean Day 2023, I got to participate in water-based activities, which of course filled my soul as they always do.
For the second year in a row, I assisted the National Park Service and a group of female military veterans of the WAVES (Wounded American Veterans Experience Scuba) Project in underwater marine debris removals within Biscayne National Park. Every year, WAVES presents specialized diving opportunities to its members, and 2023 is the third year that an all-female team of veterans has visited and removed debris from the Park. The debris removal events take place in an area called Ball Buoy Reef, which is located in the southeast corner of the Park, just north of Key Largo.
This area of reef sits in about 30 feet of water and up until three years ago, hosted commercial lobster fishing in addition to recreational fishing. In 2020, Ball Buoy was designated a Coral Reef Protection Area and lobstering is no longer permitted in this area. Unfortunately, as with many ocean-related issues, the sea does not recognize these boundaries outlined on maps, and debris is transported into protected areas via large wind and wave events.
Over five days and nine SCUBA dives, the team removed 4,824 pounds of debris including but not limited to: derelict traps (removed under permit), trap line, 265 cement trap ballasts, trap throats, fishing line, hooks and other miscellaneous debris items.
Debris removal efforts remain critical because submerged debris items, especially the heavier trap-related parts, can break apart and roll around the reef. These items physically damage, smother, or even kill sensitive, slow-growing organisms like stony corals, soft corals, and sponges. Careful assessment of debris interaction with organisms is required, as well as very deliberate disentanglement and removal. Members of the WAVES team served as surface snorkel support, retrieving lift bags attached to the debris and swimming them over to the boat for extraction. The entire effort requires clear and constant communication, both above and underwater.
To be a part of this effort resonated even more loudly this year, as the WAVES project week overlapped with World Ocean Day. I feel proud to give back to the ocean which gives all of us so much, and know that due to this tremendous effort, we left this area in a far healthier state than we found it, helping the National Park Service continue with its mission of preserving and protecting special areas for future generations.
The WAVES Project in Biscayne National Park was funded by the National Park Foundation.