TAMPA, Fla. — The Great Port Cleanup is back at work trying to protect the future of Tampa Bay and its inhabitants.
“We're seeing quite a bit of accumulation in certain areas in and all around the Bay, really. It's maybe 56 years of accumulation of floatable debris," Chris Cooley, Director of Environmental Affairs for Port Tampa Bay, said.
The theme for this year’s Great Port Cleanup is investing in the planet.
“We had our inaugural event last year and we removed over 19,000 pounds of trash, floatable debris, mainly plastics and styrofoam," Cooley added.
Cooley said efforts to protect the Bay go beyond earth day. It’s a celebration of how far we’ve come.
“There's been a significant improvement in the water quality of Tampa Bay since the 1950s. They've set targets for... seagrass recruitment and regeneration... There were some major water quality issues in the Bay. Habitat, seagrass loss, and we've really turned that around," Cooley explained.
He attributes that turn-around to community effort… like those along the shoreline picking up waste one by one.
“In years past, we have collected tons and tons of trash. And, every year we actually record the amount of trash that we pick up. So, it has gone down in the last probably six years compared to six years prior," Debbie Evenson, Executive Director of Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, said.
From 2015 to 2016 Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful reported it removed 621, 296 pounds of waste. That number dropped in 2019 to 358,567. Fast forward to 2021, 225, 800 pounds of litter were picked up.
Over the last six years, 1,897,386 pounds of waste has been removed from Tampa Bay, according to Evenson.
She said mangroves play a crucial role in the fight for a cleaner bay.
“Being able to go into the mangroves and send volunteers in there, when the water comes in, it brings the trash into it, and then it captures it so it’s not going back into the bay. So it’s kind of like we’re bringing all the trash tour volunteers. They get a little into the mangroves and they can fill one bag just in one spot," Evenson added.
Although clean-up efforts are making a difference organizers said single-use plastic like straws and water bottles continue to damage marine life.
“Finding that in the waterways is horrible because what happens is those plastics break down into microplastics, which then sea life are just ingesting so they don't even... know maybe they're meaning to eat it but then obviously, eventually they're going to end up either dying," Kristina Moreta, education events coordinator, said.
The path to restoring damaged ecosystems and a more sustainable life remains top of mind for Cooley.
“We're working on determining where the trash is coming from. So we've adopted what's called a water goat. And a few other entities in the area of have adopted these water goats. They're kind of a very simple system of buoys and that's it scans these floatable’s off the top of the water before they make their way into the bay and ultimately into the gulf of Mexico. So, that's one big initiative is trying to isolate that trash from its source," Cooley explained.
As for this year's Great Port Cleanup, Evenson said it’s nearly doubled from last year as she expects to clean up around 35,000 pounds of waste.
“The day-to-day operations, that's the key. You know, we prepare for the big incidents because it could happen but it's really those day-to-day, best practices in the industry. That's really going to make the difference moving forward," Cooled said.