Trash is a scourge the marine ecosystem cannot fight off itself, which is why organizations like Lagoon Keepers have become a vital cog in conservation and restoration efforts in Palm Beach County.
Founded and operated by Greg Reynolds, Lagoon Keepers is a grassroots-style nonprofit organization dedicated to the waters of Palm Beach County. From Tequesta to Boca and all watery points in between, Reynolds and a band of volunteer members scour the Lake Worth Lagoon, the Intracoastal Waterway, canals and river outlets in search of refuse and trash. For 10 years, the group's mission has been “to remove floating debris on a daily basis, therefore improving the quality of the water for everyone’s benefit and environmental health.”
Trash and debris, mainly plastics, have been collecting at sea creating gigantic garbage patches, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems.
Photos provided by NOAA
“I wish I didn’t have to do this,” Reynolds says about the daily forays out on the water in search of trash and debris. “But the simple fact is no else is or will.”
Through a membership program, Keepers runs a fleet of kayaks in eight locations that members can use for free, anytime: Jupiter Pointe Marina, Loggerhead at Jonathan's Landing, Loggerhead at Frenchmans Creek, Adventure Time Kayaks, New Port Cove Marina Center, Blue Water Power Boat Rentals, Peanut Island Maritime Museum and Boynton Beach Intracoastal Jet Ski and Boat Rental. However, there is a catch: While paddling, if you see trash, pick it up. As added incentive, members can send in photos of the trash collected and will then be entered into monthly drawings for movie tickets and restaurant gift cards. And if that weren’t enough, membership only costs $25 per individual, $50 for family—you’d be hard-pressed to rent a kayak cheaper than that for a half-day, let alone have a fleet at your disposal all year.
This may sound rather benign, but collecting water-bound trash is essential to maintaining the balance of the marine ecosystem. Most have heard of the giant garbage patches forming in the world’s oceans—massive fields of plastics corralled by the great oceanic gyres. Some claim the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the northern Pacific is larger than the continental United States, while the north and south Atlantic patches are growing daily. These are not the result of maritime litter—though that does add to it—but trash from land that eventually makes it to sea. Rivers, streams and canals pump thousands of pounds of trash into the Intracoastal Waterway daily, which then leads out to the ocean. On the way, marine life like sea turtles, dolphins and whales mistakenly eat plastic bags, water bottles and balloons, while marine critters become ensnared and die. According to Ocean Crusaders, shoppers worldwide use approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags per year, resulting in the death of more than 100,000 marine animals and one million sea birds each year. Trash that is not eaten or added to the patch is snagged by reefs, suffocating out corals and other invertebrates. This has a cascading effect, causing irreparable harm and damage to an ecosystem already tenuously hanging in the balance. The kayak patrol is often the last line of defense before this trash makes it out to sea, where it will stay for hundreds of years—slowly breaking down, making its way into the food web.
Without organizations like Lagoon Keepers, the fragile underwater environment and its inhabitants like this angelfish stand little chance of remaining this pristine.
Photo provided by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
On the larger end, Reynolds and his band of volunteers make daily patrols in a handful of donated power boats, searching for anything floating along that may cause a navigation problem. “We’ve pulled trees from the water, floating docks, errant boats,” Reynolds says from his Rivera Beach shop, which acts as boat repair center and weekend maritime garage sale hotspot. “You’d be surprised by the calls we get.”
On call, Reynolds and Lagoon Keepers provide a service that no one else is willing to do—even the county park’s department. When something floats by, the department calls Lagoon Keepers. “I get calls from the Coast Guard all the time,” Reynolds says.
Additionally, Keepers removes derelict boats that have long been abandoned, beached or sunk. When a boat sinks, the owner has 30 days to remove the vessel or be charged with a third-degree felony. But anyone who has been to Peanut Island or Burt Reynolds Park knows there are quite a few boats that have long surpassed that 30-day window. These vessels can be a nightmare for navigation and the environment, as they slowly leech oil and hydraulic fluids, break apart, add to the trash problem and reduce the draft levels for boats. Keepers will raise and remove derelict vessels, getting them out of the water. To date, Lagoon Keepers has removed 189 boats from the 42-mile stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway in Palm Beach County, helping maintain the waterway system.
|One of the derelict vessels raised and removed by Lagoon Keepers.|
Yet it’s not just the public that has come to rely on Lagoon Keepers’ service but also a host of private companies. Many leaders in the maritime industry regionally and internationally recognize the merits in what Reynolds and crew are up to. Just a quick look at the organization’s corporate supporter list—which includes heavy-hitters like Viking Yachting Center, Rybovich, Evinrude, Towboat US and West Marine—speaks volumes to the organization’s necessity: A navigable waterway is vital to the economic viability of this region.
According to Florida Inland Navigation District’s 2011 report “Economic Benefits of the District’s Waterways,” Palm Beach County’s Inland Navigation District (the Intracoastal Waterway) and the Lake Worth Lagoon support a local marine industry estimated at $1.26 billion in business volume annually. This equates to 5,879 jobs, amounting to $297.5 million in personal income and $53.3 million in tax revenue. While the Port of Palm Beach maybe small in stature, it is the fourth busiest in the state and eighteenth nationally. On top of that, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection claims in 2001, “the artificial and natural reef systems of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties contributed $3.8 billion in sales to the local economy, as well as almost 60,000 jobs.” It is hard to overstate the importance of a clean and navigable waterway system.
Raising derelict vessels is no easy task. Over the last decade, Lagoon Keepers helped raise and remove 189 derelict boats from the Intracoastal Waterway like the one pictured here.
To help bolster Lagoon Keepers’ maritime army, Reynolds is implementing a new phase to the organization’s charter. He wants to enact a new citizen patrol system by commissioning new boats to be built by local boat builder, Offshore Catamarans, and designed to handle trash pick-up and patrol missions. He then wants to pass them on to members of the organization to act as captains. The goal is to have seven boats strategically placed along the 42-mile stretch of Palm Beach’s inland waterways, each patrolling a six-mile range. The vessels will be on call and expected to make patrol missions throughout their specific range, and in return, the member essentially gets free access to a boat.
“There will be a small fee so that they have a little skin in the game,” Reynolds says, “but they essentially get a free boat.”
This plan puts the onus back on the people, creating a stewardship that goes beyond weekend kayak trips and the occasional beach clean-up. There are a lot of nonprofits dedicated to the sea competing for dollars in Palm Beach County, all targeting different flagship species or causes, and all are worthy. But few are strictly dedicated to keeping the marine ecosystems clean, which benefits everything—man, animal and environment alike. Frankly, many of these organizations directly benefit from Lagoon Keepers, but little is said of them. Every day, a new round of tonnage makes it into the water. But without the Keepers, things would be a lot worse.
“We’re keeping it from the reef,” Reynolds says, “but it’s hard to get people excited about trash.” But for everyone who enjoys exploring our waterways, a debt of gratitude is owed.
- For more information about Lagoon Keepers and ways to help, visit lagoonkeepers.org.
The mission behind Lagoon Keepers helps keep the local marine environment clean for all to enjoy.
Photo provided by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.