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Nonprofit’s ‘Ocean Sweep’ helps a ton

Mark Parker

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Volunteers collected nearly a ton of trash during the St. Pete Ocean Sweep Saturday morning. The red box in the center of this heap is a battery charging device. Photos by Mark Parker.

Volunteers with the Water Warrior Alliance collected over 1,900 pounds – just under a ton – of trash and debris from local waterways Saturday as part of its St. Pete Ocean Sweep.

The St. Petersburg-based organization’s annual trash collection tournament also serves as a fundraiser for SCUBA camp scholarships. Participating groups, including other nonprofits, residents and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) dive team, weighed their bounties at Crabby’s on the Pass after spending the morning scouring shorelines and the seafloor.

The John’s Pass restaurant provided lunch while the Water Warriors Alliance (WWA) awarded teams for collecting the most weight, abandoned anchors, discarded cigarette butts and retrieving the “most unique” item.

Susan Olszewski, a WWA volunteer and Diamonds in the Rough team member, helped ensure over 400 pounds of trash will no longer pollute area beaches.

Olszewski called protecting local waterways her passion and believes the Ocean Sweep makes a “great impact.” She also credited WWA founder Jenna Byrne’s work ethic for attracting her to the nonprofit.

“I wanted somebody who is actually doing it, not just sitting behind a desk making phone calls,” Olszewski said. “She was actually doing the cleanups, making it happen.”

Jenna Byrne (left), founder of the Water Warrior Alliance, speaks with a member of the Old Salty Souls team.

The Debris Deniers collected the most weight in the Waterborne Division, with 425.8 pounds. The FWC team placed second with 263.5 pounds and won the “most unique” trophy for finding an antique ship bell.

The Old Salty Souls placed first in the Shoreside Division after collecting 421.8 pounds of trash. They also retrieved that category’s most unique item – a truck bed liner.

Several organizations contributed to the event’s success. The Gulfport Dive Center provided free charters and SCUBA gear, and the Freedom Boat Club offered its vessels.

Repair the Seas made Ocean Sweep award medallions out of up-cycled plastic bottles.

Raffle items included a Tampa Bay Buccaneers commemorative football signed by Antoine Winfield Jr. Proceeds go to Camp Coral, a WWA educational program that enables students to receive SCUBA and coral restoration certifications.

Thursday, June 8, was World Ocean Day. It was also Byrnes’ birthday, and about 100 people and 22 teams helped her celebrate in “the best way” Saturday.

“Years ago, this was just a hobby,” Byrnes said. “And I feel completely privileged that I now get to spend each day working towards my goal.”

Event organizers and volunteers at Crabby’s on the Pass.

Byrnes expressed her gratitude for several other nonprofit leaders reaching out to collaborate over the past year. She explained that while many organizations compete for the same grant dollars, she is more concerned with protecting local waterways.

“A lot of groups that maybe weren’t super into it before are now joining,” Byrnes said. “We’re spreading further and further, so it’s beautiful.”

A Florida native, Byrne launched the WWA in 2017 after returning to St. Petersburg. Much of her work now consists of deploying Water Goats – a system of surface nets that trap pollution – around stormwater outflows to collect trash before it enters delicate ecosystems.

The Alliance also utilizes a network of debris divers to help clean seafloors and collect critical marine data. She previously noted that 80% of debris sinks once it hits the water due to wind, or careless humans.

Fostering a love and respect for local waterways in children is another key aspect of the organization’s efforts. Anyone under 18 can participate in the Ocean Sweep’s Youth Division, and the Trash Turtles collected 207 cigarette butts Saturday morning.

Shutter Me Up found the most unique item, a yellow bra. Byrnes relayed that many young people volunteer out of personal conviction rather than to accumulate scholarship community service hours.

She called their efforts on a summer weekend inspiring.

“One of the reasons I started Camp Coral was to make sure I inspire the youth and expose them to what it means to be a Water Warrior,” she added. “Get out on the water, dive, fish. If you can’t go out on the water, you won’t become an environmental steward because you have nothing to care about it.”

The Ocean Sweep is similar to a fishing tournament.

Byrnes would like to see World Ocean Day receive the same attention as Earth Day, held annually April 22. However, many organizations increase efforts throughout April, Earth Month.

She noted that oceans dominate the planet’s surface area, and its biodiversity continues shrinking. Byrnes encourages everyone to spend a little time improving the area’s most valuable resource and teaching the next generation to do the same.

“If the ocean isn’t healthy, we aren’t healthy,” she said. “By joining in these types of cleanups or ongoing efforts, you can make a bigger impact to save our waterways for the future.”

The Water Warrior Alliance’s next tournament is the Tampa Bay Ocean Sweep, Sept. 16 at Tampa’s Rick’s on the River in conjunction with Coastline Cleanup Week. For more information, visit the website here.

 

 

 

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