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The Battle Against Plastic: Conserving Turtle Nesting Beaches in Biscayne

SFNPT Biscayne Cleanup event

Saving Sea Turtles, One Beach at a Time… a group of SFNPT volunteers pitch in to clean a turtle nesting beach in Biscayne National Park

By Jessica Lee Pierce

May 2017 – Sea turtles face a slew of challenges worldwide that threaten their existence, including the loss of nesting beaches here in South Florida and elsewhere. Human development and other anthropogenic drivers such as beach erosion, light pollution, and marine debris have destroyed or impacted the quality of many nesting sites. Now more than ever, remaining nest sites are critical to the future of our sea turtle populations.

With this in mind, a group of 15 of us gathered at the headquarters of Biscayne National Park on a recent Sunday morning to clear marine debris from Adelle Beach, a nesting site located on one of the park islands. From January through April, clearing beach sites like Adelle is a top priority for conservation efforts in the park before the nesting season begins in May. I was excited to organize this outing because it was a chance for our members to see firsthand one of the long-term projects the Trust supports. Since 2005 the SFNPT has helped fund cleanup projects in Biscayne National Park, including the volunteer program that coordinates hundreds of volunteers to help with this massive annual cleanup effort.

After a brief orientation and safety talk, our group departed from the mainland dock for the short ride out to Elliott Key. We arrived at Elliott, unloaded our gear, and started the hike across the key to a boardwalk on the windward side of the island.  It was a blustery day and the sound of waves and wind filled our ears as we walked the winding path. To our right, the limestone rock sparkled in the sun and small tide pools gathered water and tiny snails. Mangroves and other hearty coastal species lined our route resulting in a mosaic of vibrant greens, blue seas, and ancient coral limestone. It was beautiful.

It wasn’t long into the walk that trash became visible. So accustomed to plastic in our natural world, I overlooked the first few lone pieces of plastic scattered throughout the brush. As we continued to walk the accumulation of trash became more apparent, so much so that by the end of the boardwalk the amount of trash was staggering. The awesome sight of the island’s beauty at the start of our walk was replaced with endless debris that scarred the landscape, mixing as one with mangrove roots and sea wrack.

High winds made the day’s logistics a bit challenging. Typically park vessels anchor just offshore and groups wade right up the to the cleanup location. Today though, our boats were forced to stay bayside and our group had to traverse along the island shoreline to the designated cleanup location. We followed our leaders past this endless debris and marched further along the shoreline.  It was difficult to resist the urge to clean as we went, but our goal was not this garbage. The accumulation of trash is so endless that these cleanups must prioritize our efforts to the most critical habitats – nesting beaches.

My heart sank when I looked down the stretch of beach we came to clean. I was shocked by how much debris covered the area; from large derelict fish traps to broken down plastic so small it looked like confetti lining the shore. I didn’t know where to begin, but thankfully our leaders did and with their help we started the cleanup process. We filled bags, crawled under branches, and sifted through seaweed. Slowly the bulk of the trash was removed. I felt a small tinge of hope when I looked back and could see a noticeable difference in the area we cleared. As I worked picking up plastic I knew garbage would wash ashore again, but I also knew that our hard work helped provide a small window of clear beach that will give a fin up to our sea turtle friends.

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It is safe to say that all of the volunteers in our group had an awareness of the ocean’s garbage problem, but even so our time on this cleanup opened all our eyes. In discussions about the world’s plastic problems, the first remarks I often hear are about reusable bags and water bottles. Those are great changes, but they are only a confetti-sized plastic piece of a start of a solution. It is easy to get mad at our world and all the “other” people who cause this mess, but while I was cleaning I found my life on that beach. I felt connected to each piece of garbage I collected and was reminded that my lifestyle and consumer choices were the source of this problem.  I was connected to the shampoo bottles, hair brushes, shoes, sandals, surf leash, tennis balls, chairs, fluorescent light bulbs, lighters, forks, straws, and other endless items I picked up that day. ALL of us, as consumers, are fueling the plastic demand. We must go beyond just the plastic water bottles and grocery bags and rethink our product choices across all aspects of our lives.

A 2015 study in Science magazine estimated that 4.8 to 12.7 million Metric Tons entered the ocean worldwide in one year1. To put that into perspective, our group of 15 cleaned up over 400 lbs of plastic trash in a few hours and together we added to the 7 Tons of marine debris collected from Biscayne National Park since January. In the grand scheme of things that number is just a drop in a bucket, but the targeted effort to clean nesting sites does make a difference. With worldwide scale drivers behind many of the challenges facing our local resources, managers must prioritize to effectively mitigate problems such as marine debris.

Our oceans have a serious trash problem and a tremendous amount of effort goes into maintaining critical park habitats, but together we can make a difference. One person can’t collect as much garbage as a group of volunteers, just like one person can’t generate 12.7 million MT of trash that enters the ocean in a year. The only way to solve this problem is together. Worldwide we must rethink our plastic addiction and begin to turn from our convenient disposable lifestyles. We need to educate others, volunteer to help, and donate to support projects that are working to fight these problems.

Jessica Lee Pierce is a Development Associate at the South Florida National Parks Trust

1.Jambeck, Jenna R., et al. “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean.” Science 347.6223 (2015): 768-771.

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