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SeaTrek BVI and NAUI Green Diver Initiative Gasp Cleanup

June 7th, 2017 by Ally Marter |
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            The following is a personal reflection written by SeaTrek BVI Lead Biologist Ally Marter as a follow up to a previous Island Times Blog Post on the Gasp – Our Beads of Tampa Bay Survey and Clean-Up Project. The event was created through a partnership between NAUI Worldwide, the Green Diver Initiative (GDI) and the Center for Open Exploration (C4OE) and funded by a Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) Mini Grant. The day after Earth Day (April 22nd)  Ally and four of her University of Tampa friends (including SeaTrek Staff Photographer Matt Gamache) participated as volunteer divers in the cleanup, helping to pull up some of the 100 pounds of plastic beads recovered from the Seddon Channel of Tampa Bay that day.

As I descended into the murky Seddon Channel off Davis Islands in Tampa, I wasn’t really sure what I would see. With a low visibility of about 3 feet, I soon realized it was difficult enough to see my friend and dive buddy, Matt, let alone the small party bead trinkets we were searching for. After descending about 8 feet, the rocky bottom suddenly appeared and I was able to somewhat  orient myself.  We scoured the river floor for any sign of beads, and worked our way into shallower water where the visibility became a little clearer. As the murky curtains of the water lifted, an alarmed sheepshead fish appeared center stage among a back drop of jagged oyster bar substrate. We stared at each other for a while, equally as startled, and mutually intrigued. I was soon distracted, though, by a peripheral glimpse of Matt starting to pull our first beads from the bottom. The Sstill watching, I too, extracted a muck covered bead strand from beneath me. Apparently finished with his appraisal of my intruding presence in his habitat, the pragmatic fish decisively turned back to more important business –foraging among the maze of oysters. I smiled, sensing that this was his way of deeming my visit acceptable. For a while, we worked side-by-side picking through the oyster beds and muck, the fish searching for his lunch, and myself searching for a little atonement on behalf of fellow humans.

Sheepshead fish (Archosargus probatocephalus) like this one pictured here are commonly found in coastal waters like the Tampa Bay)

Given the fact that we were out-of-state freshmen at the University of Tampa, Matt and I had enjoyed attending the Gasparilla festivities for our very first time back in late January. This historic, pirate-themed parade is a tremendous part of the Tampa community and economy, bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over. With a reputation for unchecked celebration and a long-time tradition of bead throwing, Gasparilla is like Tampa’s own version of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

As a paradegoer and a cleanup diver, I can definitely attest that Gasparilla is quite the spectacle to witness—as equally above water as below. I was astounded by the number of beads the 25 other divers and I uncovered in less than a quarter mile of the channel that day—almost 100 pounds! Tenderly pulling up strand after strand of beads (old and new), I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the lasting impact that we were leaving behind of Gaspy? Of waste and debris? I was also struck by the irony of pulling up a particular strand of plastic, fish-shaped beads, fully realizing how shabby of a replacement this was for my new sheepshead friend.

A strand of muck covered beads hides in the oyster bed substrate…Picture contributed by Florida Aquarium

My encounter with Mr. Sheepshead brought me to a meaningful train of thought. In the search for solutions to negative human impact on the environment, the words “conservation” and “preservation” are used frequently. These concepts are extremely important, but I think we also need to look at it in terms of peaceful cohabitation: a shared space.  I don’t think that all our focus should necessarily be about keeping environments completely pristine or untouched. In many cases, especially those like the Hillsborough River/Tampa Bay in a metropolitan area, the idea of trash-free, untouched nature is infeasible. When taken to extremes, a preservationist kind of thinking can unintentionally promote the idea that humans and nature are two separate entities. In reality, we are very much a part of the natural world around us, and our sense of community should reflect this.

Gasparilla in itself is a really important celebration of the culture and community of Tampa Bay, but we can’t forget that our Tampa community doesn’t just include the humans that reside here; it includes Mr. Sheepshead and his friends, too. It includes every living organism in Tampa (land and sea). Looking forward, what can respectful cohabitation look like?  I’m not suggesting that we boycott Gaspy, or even try to halt the tradition of throwing beads. However, maybe we can mediate its impact so that we take care to truly celebrate the entire Tampa community, including the natural aspects. I’ve heard about some creative, encouraging ideas like biodegradable beads or even beads that float so that they can be quickly scooped up. Of course, every solution has its drawbacks, and creating a social behavior change at this large of scale is not going to happen easily or quickly. Nonetheless, the best place to start is by promoting public education and awareness—and that’s exactly what I enjoyed about this dive cleanup! It was a tremendous eye-opener for Tampa locals and beyond.

 

Overall, I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to team up with such a great group of local volunteers representing an awesome variety of Tampa Bay interests and organizations. It was a great way to take a break from studying for college finals, and also a great way to take some of the high quality, NAUI dive skills and apply them to my own blue backyard—helping with some housecleaning for Mr. Sheepshead and the rest of the underwater neighborhood. Although the visibility for the dive that day was almost zero, the take home message was clear: in our search for fun and pirate-themed trinkets during the Gasparilla parade, it’s important to remember the natural treasure inherent in our Tampa Bay waters, too. In an effort to redefine Gasparilla as a more sustainable celebration, every individual action counts, whether it’s diving to pull up sunken beads, or telling a friend about this issue. Ultimately, we’ll need all hands on deck to keep our beads out of the Bay.

 

If you would like to learn more about the Gasp – Our Beads of Tampa Bay Survey and Clean-Up Project you can read our previous blog post here or check out the Tampa Bay Times article here or Fox News feature here. You can also go to www.nauigreendiver.org or contact nauigreendiver@naui.org.

 

 

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