A Different Kind of Picker

Hurricane Irma left a ton of detritus in her wake. Instead of sitting back and waiting, the Conch Republic Marine Army mobilized in an effort to revitalize the mangrove forests of the Keys.

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A popular reality series, American Pickers follows two guys cruising the country looking for unique antiques in unusual and sometimes remote places. Their goal is to pluck the items from obscurity and then resell them to make a profit.

There is another kind of picker in the Florida Keys, but profit is far from their motive. Like the pickers on television, this group is trying to save things for the future, however the Conch Republic Marine Army (CRMA) is trying to rescue and save are the very heart and soul of the Key’s ecosystem, the mangroves.

The CRMA was founded as a non-profit, 501(c)3 group of volunteers in December, 2017 after Hurricane Irma devastated the Keys earlier in September. With sustained winds of 132 miles per hour and storm surges up to 8 feet, the hardest hit area was the Middle and Lower Keys.

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Officials estimate over 1,117 homes were totally destroyed while another 2,977 sustained severe damage. Likewise, the United States Coast Guard recovered nearly 1,500 boats that had been destroyed. There are no estimates about how many were never recovered. Many of these boats, like the houses, were simply blown to pieces and a lot of those pieces ended up in the near-shore waters and mangroves.

Federal, state and local efforts at recovery were first focused along U.S. Route 1, known as the Overseas Highway that runs the length of the Keys. That is the corridor most tourists associate with the Keys. Then the focus turned to trying to clear the labyrinth of canals that people rely on for access to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

But it became apparent that no attempt was going to be made to remove the staggering amount of debris lodged in the mangroves. So the volunteers of the CRMA decided to tackle that enormous task themselves by pooling their labor and seeking donations to cover costs.

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On a shoestring budget, their results are astounding. To date, over 3,700 volunteers have worked over 18,000 hours to remove 155 tons of trash and debris that includes 245 miles of trap line and 82 refrigerators. While much of this was Irma related, it also represents removal of tons of garbage left after years of abuse and neglect.

For the first three years, the approach was to gather as many volunteers as possible on a Saturday morning, then have everyone kayak to a designated location. This is totally a water-based operation, as nothing is accessible by land.

The workers, proudly known as Mangrove Monkeys, would either wade along the shoreline or carefully pick their way deep into the now-dead mangroves to extract the debris. That would be transferred to an anchored pontoon barge and when it was full, would be towed back to land, unloaded and the process would continue. A lunch was provided by a local sponsor, Kiki’s Sandbar Bar and Grill, but there was no avoiding the fact the work was frequently hot, filthy and tiring.

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Then the pandemic hit and large gatherings were prohibited. But the problem remained, so organizers Brian and Laura Vest of Big Pine Key started taking out six volunteers every Saturday morning. An anonymous donor had helped fund the purchase of a 27-foot Carolina Skiff and Yamaha Motors helped them obtain a 22-5hp, four stroke outboard through Yamaha’s Rightwater Program that encompasses their conservation and water quality efforts. Then T-H Marine stepped up and arranged for the boat to get an Atlas Jack Plate and the final touches were a Minn Kota Talon shallow water anchor and a Humminbird Helix GPS from Johnson Outdoors. The end result is a boat that can be anchored in only 8 inches of water and can keep track of the waters they have already cleaned and thus became their garbage scow.

The volunteers drag mesh bags with them and when they are full, dump their load into the skiff. A lunch break is still part of the deal, now donated by Winn Dixie. Then it’s back to work in the afternoon.

Besides the overwhelming number of non-biodegradable buoy balls, the trash consists of trap line that is frequently found wound around the mangroves, and the usual detritus from destroyed houses and boats. But there are also surprises.

One day they pulled out a large, 5 by 10 feet of metal but had no idea what it was. It turned out to be some fairing from the main body of a space rocket that had been launched at the French Guyana Space Port.

On another clean-up, someone discovered a rotting wood plaque that had an inscribed metal certificate attached. That plate was a copy of a patent a man had received for a unique fish culturing system. After some research, the volunteers located the patent holder, who was thrilled to get the plaque back.

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And on a recent outing, someone dug out an odd shaped unit with a cable hanging out and a sealed dome that seemed to have small solar collectors under it. They posted pictures online and quickly learned it was a GPS tracker for drift nets that are used in the Caribbean. The nets are released with two of these trackers, then drift until the owners track them with the GPS coordinates to harvest what the nets have caught.

Tourists in the Keys see the rebuilt and revitalized business areas along the main corridor, but what most don’t see (or don’t realize) is the backbone of the marine environment that draws them in the first place is highly connected to and dependent on the health of the mangrove forests. And that is why the CRMA continues to do what they do.

You can learn more on their website, conchrepublicmarinearmy.org or their Facebook page. Then consider how you can help.

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