Environment

Biscayne National’s mangroves are full of trash. Paddleboarders are helping clean up park.

Biscayne National Park Institute Debris Cleanup

Naturalist Frank Castillo and volunteers join the Biscayne National Park Institute in removing marine debris from sensitive coastal habitats including, sea turtle nesting beaches, mangrove shorelines on Tuesday, July 2, 2019.
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Naturalist Frank Castillo and volunteers join the Biscayne National Park Institute in removing marine debris from sensitive coastal habitats including, sea turtle nesting beaches, mangrove shorelines on Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

The mangroves at Biscayne National Park are home to everything from baby fish to crabs — and, unfortunately, an awful lot of trash. Now, a small fleet of volunteers on paddleboards are trying to clean things up.

After a month of weekly trips, the cleanup crews already have pulled 767 pounds of plastic, rope, fishing twine and other marine debris out of the water.

Biscayne National Park Institute, a Florida National Parks Association entity that provides educational programs and boat tours, takes volunteers around beaches, sea turtle nests and along mangrove shorelines every Tuesday and last Saturday of the month from 9 a.m. to about noon.

So far, the volunteer response has been strong and most of the Tuesday trips are booked for about two months out, said Frank Castillo, a Biscayne National Park Institute naturalist and first mate. A boat carrying paddle boats, buckets and life jackets can only take up to 12 people on the cleanup trip, and spots fill fast.

“We’re going to go try to make a difference today,” Castillo told the volunteers on an outing this week.

As the boat approached a mangrove shoreline, he talked about some not-so-fun facts about water pollution: Polluted water puts South Florida’s diverse marine life at risk. Animals that eat plastic die painful deaths. Trash swept away in ocean currents ends up in “garbage islands” the size of Texas. There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

But, there’s hope, Castillo said. While Florida lawmakers push for single-use plastic and straw bans, residents can get involved to protect the national park in their backyard. The debris cleanup trip is free and open to anyone capable of paddleboarding and lifting objects.

At first glance, it’s hard to spot trash until paddling closer to the trees. A plastic shed bobbed in the water before volunteers dragged it out. It probably blew into the mangroves after a hurricane, Castillo said.

Volunteers came back with buckets full of old rope and a block of Styrofoam the size of a mini-fridge. Castillo balanced a moldy plastic oil tank on his board.

Samantha Seco, who owns Bolt Training in Homestead, joined some of her gym members on the trip for the first time. She found fishing line, a makeshift dive flag, a cooler “full of crap,” deflated balloons and a tangled mess of rope filled with baby crabs and shrimp.

She said she’ll be back with more gym members next week. For more information on the cleanups, go to https://www.biscaynenationalparkinstitute.org/debris-cleanups/.

“Pay it forward to Mother Nature,” Seco said. “You live here.”

After an hour and a half of paddling, the group collected 167 pounds of trash. But it didn’t go to a landfill, Gabriela Barrocas took it with her.

Barrocas, a South Florida National Parks Trust ambassador, is building a maze out of trash to raise awareness of plastic consumption and pollution. She gathers usable garbage from cleanups, rinses it off and puts it inside mesh walls.

She hopes to have the maze done by the fall and to set it up in a public space. The project is about more than not using plastic, she said.

“We need to consider having different habits if we want to protect the areas that we love,” Barrocas said.

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