Dumping our waste at Sea

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No matter where you are in the world, if you are into diving then it is always a great pleasure to get wet and look for wildlife or perhaps a new wreck. But sometimes the whole experience can be ruined by other people’s garbage. You can see it floating on the surface or just hanging in mid water trying to decide whether to up or go down. And there on the sea bed is more rubbish. Tyres, car batteries, prams, plastic in all shapes and sizes… the list goes on. Occasionally you put what you can in your pocket and bring it up for disposal into a convenient bin. Most times it just gets left there to become a permanent fixture of the environment or worse, becomes entwined into the food chain. Often we see animals that are caught up in garbage or have rusty fishing hooks caught in their bodies.

Do you ever wish someone would clear it all up? Well, there is a man who went a step further than just wishing. His name is Captain Donald Voss, he’s based on the east coast of Florida and runs the Marine Cleanup Initiative Inc., operating through funding from organizations such as NOAA, South Florida Water Management District, West Marine, Sebastian Inlet District and FPAT.

Jeff: I wrote to Don and asked him exactly what it was he did. 

Don:  We use volunteers to address the massive issue of marine debris, dumping, littering and just plain conservation of our natural resources for the use and entertainment of future generations. For water-based operations, we have a database of 400+ volunteers with boats, time and/or diving equipment who give of themselves to remove this mess.  For land-based operations, we have a growing core group of about 150 kayakers and SUP’ers who come out and swarm the islands and our boats assist them with the removal and transporting of the debris.  Our volunteers do this because I have asked them to help and we throw a pretty cool party afterward to thank them. Many of our crew are formerly Navy SEALS and just old divers who find a sense of accomplishment from giving back. Younger people like the enthusiasm I offer.  Most come because our group is allowed to dive places no diver has been since the ’70’s.  I point out you get to second base with nature when you dive our cleanup events.  I view myself as sort of a Pied Piper.

Jeff: Why do you do this?

Don:  In 1969, I was blown up in Vietnam and told I would lose my legs.  A few days later, the doctors decided my legs were of no harm to my survival and set the broken bones.  After a year of traction and rest, I was released and sent home to decide if I was going to be a crutches guy or a wheelchair guy. About the same time, a horse broke his leg in the Kentucky Derby.  Rather than shoot him, they tried a new technique of placing the horse in a sling into a pool and allow him to swim and mend his leg, gravity-free and then release him out to stud.  Upon hearing this, I decided this was exactly what I wanted…. to be placed out as a stud :).  I moved to the Florida Keys and began swimming, then snorkelling and finally diving.  I regained my strength and now I walk and dive and do all things with little restrictions from my 100% disability.  I firmly believe I owe my life to the water and I therefore use this platform pay-back.  I left the keys and returned to Ohio where I raised my kids and ran a huge not-for-profit recycling centre and also travelled the world diving. It did not matter where I was, I was always picking up debris and bringing it back to the boat for proper disposal.  I now have over 14,000 dives.  Eventually, when I retired and moved to Ft Pierce, I was asked to use my underwater photographic skills to determine if there was debris in the Sebastian Inlet.  I went in and looked around and formed this company.  The rest is history.

Jeff: How long have you been doing this?

Don:  I have been a conservationist and environmentalist my whole life. We formed our debris removal project in June of 2001 and used several base groups as sponsors for the first 3 years, but the in-fighting and greed caused them to split up. We, the divers that actually did the work, split free and formed what is now MCII.  So, we say 12 years.

Jeff:  Obviously you have noticed a change in the local environment where you have been cleaning up, but have you noticed any change in local attitudes to the disposal of waste?

Don:  It took until 2008 for the locals to really sit up and take notice. Up until then, we just operated in the Sebastian Inlet where we had received permission to dive. For those early years, people threw bottles at us while we dove and cursed us thinking we were stealing lobsters.  We were able to muster local news crews, marine patrols and fire rescue units to assist and used our efforts as a mock training and rescue session and these events melded well together.  We were crushed by three hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 and besides the overwhelming set back this caused, this really opened things up.  FEMA and governmental agencies were all over the area and minds opened.  There were (are) over 200 missing boats, several missing marinas and loads of missing houses and garages.  I was lucky enough to gain favour with many mayors, especially Bob Benton of Ft Pierce and some high ranking officials of FEMA and this allowed much needed exposure.  In 2009, assisted by a super smart Board member we applied for a NOAA Marine Debris and Habitat Restoration grant and received the only diver-driven grant of the 8 selected that year. With that first $200,000, MCII, has expanded and operates 200 days a year (+/- weather permitting) covering all the waters, inlets, islands and shoreline in a 90+ mile area covering four counties. We have parlayed our first grant and received numerous others, boosting our equipment, supplies, and public outreach to this larger area.  For our efforts, Loggerhead Marine Life Centre’s Blue Friends, selected me as Ambassador of the Year for our work saving turtles….they are the premiere turtle rescue hospital in America.  In 2012, I was also selected as Oceana’s International Ocean Hero.  Our town, Ft Pierce, won the Toyota/Wyland Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation in 2012.  Our waters here have cleaned up so well, that the County has reopened their once massive oyster industry and we are having our 2nd Annual Oyster fest in April.  I have spoken to over 11,000 children over the last three years and initiated the start-up of 7 other groups such as MCII around the state.  I state in my presentations that, “in 2001, I was viewed as a Carpetbagger from Ohio coming here to tell ya’ll how to deal with garbage.  Now I am more like a Chea pet and am growing on you.” We are not without our detractors, but we continue to remove huge amounts of debris with each event and are now well past the 350,000 pound mark. MCII has over 28 Proclamations and dozens of letters of support from POTUS, former Presidents, Governors, congress people, Mayors, Commissioners and civil leaders.  Our efforts are not only being felt, they are being seen.  Removal of debris reduces the back-log of silt and allows it to flow naturally.  When it becomes trapped in debris, it breaks free during storms or high winds and clouds the waters, falls upon sea grasses and chokes them out.  Our water is noticeably clear and testing far better than waters not addressing debris issues. We now are received as celebrities and school kids flock to see us and become Water Warriors.

Jeff:  What kind of people come on the Debris removal sessions? What age groups are they?

Don:  All people come to our events.  I have a blind diver, I have several disabled divers, I have kids from 16 to adults over 70.  Our events aren’t just for divers. We use captains, boats, deck hands, schleppers, shore “bubble watchers”, communications teams, kayakers, SUP’ers, jet skiers, we transport people to islands to walk and collect. We have sorters, weighers, party set-up help, people to give presentations, gather supplies, and send out press releases and dozens of other cool jobs.  We have every kind of person there is and we are always looking to engage more…mainly kids.  Kids will grab this concept and work hard to make it right.

Jeff:  What happens to all the waste?

Don:  This is the biggest part of what we do.  We separate the debris into groupings:  bottles and cans; plastics; fishing line and nets; fishing hardware; anchors, chain and rope; construction debris; tires and batteries; and misc.  We weigh it. We separate out organics and living critters… we release them. We remove the cool encrusted fishing poles and reels and set them aside along with some debris we use for displays and presentations. We then open our trash for the public to pick through.  Local fishing die-hards go for lead and lures, dive shops pick the lead out, others line up for anchors, chain and rope, lots of people grab bottles and cans and campers take the wood and burnables.  What we have left we dispose of properly.  We have great success reducing the debris down over 60%.  When local plastics recyclers are geared up, we do far better at reduction.

Jeff:  Are there any laws in place to stop future waste disposal? Are they enforced if there are?

Don: There are laws and they do not enforce them.  Cruise ships and cargo ships are the worst.  We need to catch them and then sue them to get any results.

There are many large businesses who could be Pro-active and support the litter removal caused by their products, but not so much. You would think environmental and other similar agencies would be falling over themselves heralding our efforts and results, but, not so much.  We have received some funding from SFWMD, but hardly any other support or recognition. However, local municipalities have become very strong supporters and advocates.  They have issued restrictions on plastic throw away service ware at outdoor events and put in-place biodegradable product usage to replace them.  We have pressed to have solid lids on all trash can to stop the darned birds from littering.  We have engaged the local marine patrols to “place a moratorium” of fines for littering on Spoil Islands and make announcements of same while we set-up our cleanup operations and engage the public out there.  As they weren’t fining them anyway, this is easy and the net gain should be we can slow down or stop some of this obvious littering. We are engaging law enforcement to enforce the laws that exist. We are hopeful.  Using the “baby steps” approach, and not finger-pointing at boaters, fisher people, campers and water enthusiasts, we have gained some gradual support.  Our divers, our logo flags and T-shirts have a trending value and Captain Don is always out there getting recognition and representing the efforts.  This has helped buoy the efforts.

Jeff:  Do you know if other groups have seen what you do and have taken up the initiative?

Don:  Yes, many groups have popped up as a result and we consult with coastal communities all the time.  Sea Angles, Ocean Hour, Loggerhead Blue Friends, Ocean Rehab, REEF, Masked Marlins, Surfriders, and numerous dive shops and local groups are much more active now they are supported and accepted.  Many volunteer groups have stepped up and conduct beach cleanups on a weekly or monthly basis. We have many groups we supply with mesh collection bags that are donated to us. We are thrilled at the movement and acceptance of what should be just plain commonsense. The message is clear, our photos and displays are harsh, bold, frightening and stark.  We are killing what was left to us to protect. Fish and birds eat debris and it kills them and eventually, it will poison us when we eat those critters.  Our motto:  “Out of site doesn’t make it right” says it all.

Further details about Capt Don and the MCII can be found at http://www.marinecleanupinitiativeinc.org/

(Next month we are looking at the Plastic Oceans project http://www.plasticoceans.net/the-documentary/)

Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman is the Conservation editor and also the Underwater Videography Editor for Scubaverse.com. Jeff is an award winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

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