Marine Debris Cleanups Make an Impact in the Florida Keys

Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys from National Marine Sanctuary Fdn on Vimeo.

Published Mar 11, 2020 6:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation released a report to show the impact of marine debris cleanups as part of Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys.  

Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys is a partnership between Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and its local chapter, participating Blue Star dive operators, and Project AWARE® seafloor monitoring program Dive Against Debris®. The Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys initiative engages dive professionals and recreational divers in removing marine debris to protect wildlife, corals and sponges; and engages the community in marine debris awareness and prevention through education and outreach. 

In its first year (July 2018 to July 2019), Blue Star operators that received funding support from the Foundation completed 49 cleanup trips. Nearly 450 recreational divers and 158 professional divers spent 897 hours underwater removing 14,693 pounds of debris, 78 intact lost and damaged fishing and lobster traps, hundreds of pieces of trap debris, and 16,369 feet of line.  Dive operators reported results through the Project AWARE® Dive Against Debris® citizen science program. 

Kris Sarri, president and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, said, “The Goal: Clean Seas initiative empowers local community members and businesses to become stewards of the sanctuary through direct action, and the data gleaned from these cleanup dives will help refine the focus on prevention in the future.”

Mike Goldberg, owner of Key Dives, said, "From our perspective, the program is a complete success. Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys allows us to offer a way for the Keys community to dive on the reef by going out on our boat for free and remove debris. I believe this has helped to bring our dive community together for a common purpose, one where the folks here, the reef, and the dive operators all win!”

Why Marine Debris?

Marine debris is a significant challenge facing our ocean and marine wildlife, and it is an ongoing challenge in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Lost traps and trap rope damage critical benthic habitats, such as reefs and seagrass beds, and can entangle and harm corals, sponges, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles. Removing underwater marine debris and fishing gear protects and enhances marine habitats and ecosystems; and prevents future damage through entanglement, abrasion, and breakage to a myriad of species, including: Endangered Species Act-listed corals such as elkhorn (Acropora palmata; endangered), staghorn (A. cervicornis; endangered) and boulder star coral (Orbicella franksi; threatened).

How Goal: Clean Seas Works

Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys activities require permits from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to ensure that removal is done in an environmentally-responsible manner and adheres to all applicable federal and state laws and regulations. 

Established in May 2018, the Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys initiative aims to remove underwater marine debris from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and educate the public about marine debris prevention. Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys partners work with sanctuary-recognized Blue Star dive operators to educate dive professionals and recreational divers on best practices for removal of marine debris; perform scoping dives to identify debris hotspots; remove, dispose and recycle underwater debris; conduct post-removal data reporting and analysis; and engage the public in marine debris awareness and prevention through education and outreach. 

The Blue Star program, established in 2009, is a voluntary recognition program for dive, snorkel, and fishing charters seeking to reduce damage to coral reef ecosystems by emphasizing proper etiquette for responsible diving, snorkeling, and fishing, educating customers, and engaging them as partners in coral reef conservation. Blue Star dive operators involved in Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys go beyond Blue Star requirements to work towards active restoration by partnering with the Foundation and the sanctuary in removal and prevention of underwater marine debris.

To support engagement in Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys from July 2018 to July 2019, the Foundation provided funding to five recognized Blue Star dive operators throughout the Keys: DiveN2Life, The Dive Shop at Ocean Reef, Key Dives, Horizon Divers, and Island Ventures. The Foundation is working with numerous others to provide funding assistance in the coming year, including Rainbow Reef Dive Center, Pirates Cove Watersports, and Forever Young Charter Company.
The Future

The Foundation plans to grow the successful Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys initiative to have an even greater impact, including expanding it to engage more Blue Star dive operators across the Upper, Middle and Lower Keys; coordinating with the sanctuary on kayak and shoreline cleanups; and engaging more local community partners such as school groups and fishing guides.

In addition, the Foundation is working with partners to use lessons learned from the marine debris collected to better prevent marine debris from entering the environment in the first place. 

On the broader horizon, the Foundation intends to build a national Goal: Clean Seas initiative by engaging partners to develop similar marine debris removal and recycling efforts in other national marine sanctuaries. Modeled after the success in the Florida Keys, the Foundation is working with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and community partners to support shoreline cleanups along select beaches to prevent underwater marine debris.

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