© 2021 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
In South Florida, where the Everglades meet the bays, environmental challenges abound. Sea level rise threatens homes and real estate. Invasive species imperil native plants and animals. Pesticides reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, but at what cost? WLRN's award-winning environment reporting strives to capture the color and complexity of human interaction with one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet.

Still Cleaning Up After Irma, Conch Republic Marine Army Tackles Mangrove Mess

Nancy Klingener
Brian Vest, founder of the Conch Republic Marine Army, checks on the barge off Ramrod Key where debris pulled from the shoreline was being collected.

Almost a year after Hurricane Irma, cleaning up the Florida Keys is an ongoing project. A local volunteer group is tackling one of the most difficult tasks — removing all the stuff that got washed into the mangrove shorelines along the island chain.

The Conch Republic Marine Army recently held the "Conquest of Ramrod Key" to focus on the Lower Keys island that was just to the east of where Irma's eye crossed the Keys as a Category 4 hurricane.

All vessels were welcome in this flotilla.

"We've got floatie chairs, kayaks, canoes, water wings, boats, skiffs — anything that floats, you can go out on the water and go clean up trash," said Brian Vest, founder of the Conch Republic Marine Army.

He started this project with a canal cleanup on Big Pine Key in December.

"We got together and worked all day and pulled out about 6,000 pounds of trash, roughly, maybe a little bit more," he said. "And we didn't make a dent."

So Vest put out a call on Facebook for another cleanup. More volunteers showed up. But there was always more trash.

By now, Vest said 1,600 people have volunteered to help with the Conch Republic Marine Army. The group has pulled out almost 200,000 pounds of debris — everything from refrigerators to photo albums.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
The Conch Republic Marine Army uses a volunteer-powered flotilla to collect debris and bring it back to shore for disposal.

Crews working for Monroe County have recently started pulling debris out of canals in the Keys. But Vest says there's a lot more trash still sitting in the mangrove shorelines.

"The contractor for the canals is going to do 100 of the 500 canals. And we're charged with the other 2,000 miles of shoreline," he said.

The army is an all-volunteer effort, which draws helpers from the mainland and some corporate support. Vest says there's no point in waiting for government agencies to wade into the tangled mangroves to clean up the Keys.

"There is no one coming. There's no federal agencies to do this. Who do you call?" he said. "I can't think of one. The EPA? No. DEP? No. There is no agency or a budget that's assigned for cleaning up the world after a hurricane."