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 chats to… Paul Cox, CEO of the Shark Trust about the Big Shark Pledge (Watch Video)
The Big Shark Pledge aims to build one of the biggest campaigning communities in the history of shark conservation. To put pressure on governments and fisheries. And make the positive changes required to safeguard awesome sharks and rays.
Rather listen to a podcast? Listen to the audio HERE on the new Scubaverse podcast channel at Anchor FM.
Marine Conservation Society to take legal action over ocean sewage spills
The Marine Conservation Society is announcing joining as co-claimant in a legal case against the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to protect English seas from sewage dumping.
The legal case seeks to compel the Government to rewrite its Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan 2022, impose tighter deadlines on water companies and redevelop the Plan to effectively apply to coastal waters which are, currently, almost entirely excluded.
Sandy Luk, Marine Conservation Society CEO: “Untreated sewage is being pumped into our seas for hundreds of thousands of hours each year; putting people, planet and wildlife at risk.
We’ve tried tirelessly to influence the UK Government on what needs to be done, but their Plan to address this deluge of pollution entering our seas is still unacceptable. We owe it to our members, supporters and coastal communities to act, which is why we’ve joined as co-claimants on this case. We’re out of options. Our seas deserve better.”
Launched and funded by the Good Law Project, the Marine Conservation Society will stand as co-claimants on the case with Richard Haward’s Oysters, and surfer and activist, Hugo Tagholm.
Before reaching this point, the charity responded to a government consultation in March 2022 and met with DEFRA to express concern. In August 2022, the charity wrote an open letter to DEFRA outlining the ways in which the proposed Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan fails to protect the environment and public health from dumping raw sewage into the sea. However, the Plan hasn’t been amended and still fails to adequately address water companies’ excessive reliance on storm overflows and the harm their heavy use causes to our ocean.
The plan virtually excludes most coastal waters (except for bathing waters) either directly or indirectly, with some types of Marine Protected Areas and shellfish waters totally excluded. 600 storm overflows are not covered at all by the Plan and will continue to – completely legally – be able to dump uncontrolled amounts of sewage directly into English seas and beaches. What’s more, the Plan lacks all urgency – with long-term targets set for 2050, and the earliest, most urgent targets not to be met until 2035.
Meanwhile, Marine Conservation Society analysis finds that raw sewage is pouring into the ocean at an alarming rate. In total, there are at least 1,651 storm overflows within 1km of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in England. These overflows spilt untreated sewage 41,068 times in 2021. Of these, almost half the overflows spilt more than 10 times in 2021, with an average of 48 spills for each of those overflows. Overall, in 2021, sewage poured into Marine Protected Areas for a total of 263,654 hours.
According to DEFRA’s own latest assessments, only 19% of estuaries and and 45% of coastal waters are at ‘good ecological status’, with none meeting ‘good chemical status’, and three quarters (75%) of shellfish waters failing to meet water quality standards.
Rachel Wyatt, Policy & Advocacy Manager for Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society: “Untreated sewage contains a cocktail of bacteria, viruses, harmful chemicals, and microplastics. It’s nearly impossible to remove microplastics and ‘forever chemicals’ once in the environment. Due to their persistence, with every discharge, these pollutants will continue to increase, meaning eventually they will pass – or may have already passed – a threshold of harm.”
In addition, it’s not just invisible toxins that are causing problems. In September this year at the charity’s annual Great British Beach Clean, sewage related pollution, such as wet wipes and sanitary products, were found on 73% of the beaches surveyed across England.
A new DEFRA report, Ocean Literacy in England and Wales, shows that 85% of people say marine protection is personally important to them. Yet this is being ignored.
Emma Dearnaley, Legal Director at the Good Law Project, said: “The Marine Conservation Society is at the forefront of tackling the ocean emergency and standing up for coastal communities impacted by climate change and pollution. We are delighted to have them on board as a co-claimant.
“Good Law Project will work closely with the claimants, including the Marine Conservation Society, to put forward the case for more ambitious and urgent measures to reduce sewage discharges by water companies. These sewage spills are threatening human health, biodiverse marine life and the fishing industry. We believe that taking legal action now is vital to help safeguard our coastal waters for generations to come”.
If the case is won, the Marine Conservation Society hopes to see the UK Government amend its Plan so that it meets the DEFRA Secretary of State’s legal obligations to protect the ocean and its inhabitants from raw sewage spills.
For more visit the Marine Conservation Society website.
Header image credit: Natasha Ewins
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